the Life of Turan Onat
For the Fellows of Calhoun College, Yale University
Martin S. Ewing, October 2, 2000
Onat died this past July 4, a great loss to Yale and this Fellowship.
Most of us knew Turan Onat when he was Master of Calhoun from 1990 to 1995. He and Etta took the helm at the College soon after my wife Eva and I had arrived in New Haven. Our first introduction to the Onats probably grew out of Turan's professional relationship with Eva's father, Eric Reissner. Over the years, however, and especially after he stepped down from the Master's position, we came to appreciate the breadth and humanity of Turan Onat.
In the 21st century, there may be no Renaissance Men, but Turan was certainly something akin. As you know, he was Professor of Mechanical Engineering here since 1965. He had a distinguished career with special focus on representation of the mechanical behavior of materials and the analysis of structures. He was a respected practitioner of mathematics applied in many areas of science and engineering, branching out, for example, into study of the mechanical properties of biomedical systems, such as the human heart.
Turan was born Emin Turan Onat in 1925, in Istanbul. He was educated in Turkey, receiving the Doctor of Science degree from the Technical University of Istanbul in 1951. He took a research position at Brown University, and after time out for military service in Turkey, became Associate Professor at Brown in 1957, married our dear Etta in 1959, and then became full professor in 1960.
His professional life is just the beginning of Turan's story, as befits a Renaissance character. Turan was also devoted to teaching and to students, although since he taught "hard" subjects and since his training (like most of ours here tonight) was "old fashioned", there would be some strained moments when students would ask why did they have to learn proofs. That is, why should they have to learn how to analyze a problem instead of giving a rote answer.
Proof of Turan's and Etta's dedication to students and to Yale came during their years at Calhoun. After an initial period of acculturation (you do remember the story of the tire swing?), the Onats ably provided parental guidance for this community of scholars called Calhoun.
But there is still more to the story, for Turan was an aviator, a sailor, a father and grandfather, an impresario, a painter, a student of literature, and a master conversationalist. I can only highlight a few facets tonight.
Turan was really a humanist. With a rare humility that some people might mistake for naiveté, Turan was truly interested in people. He was as concerned with the food workers and maintenance staff at Yale as with the students. In a number of lunchtime walks Turan and I visited the new low-income housing under construction west of Grove St. Cemetery and Paine-Whitney Gym. Once, we observed the demolition of the old commercial laundry building there, and Turan insisted on crossing over and dragging me along to talk to some people there to find out what had happened to all the workers who once had jobs in the plant. A little taken aback, they answered that they had all "gone to Hartford."
Turan now rests in the Grove Street Cemetery, within direct sight of his office of 35 years in Becton Engineering Center. Perhaps not coincidentally, in September this cemetery became designated a National Historic Landmark. As the press release noted, the cemetery was created in 1796 as a progressive community institution that reserved plots for people from all sectors of society. Just the place!
Turan, of course was a man of the world, bridging cultures from Turkey to the U.S. and having spent significant time in France, Germany, England, Brazil and China. While not outwardly religious, he was a student of religions and (I would say) a more Godly man than most. Some of our most interesting discussions concerned the well-known Sufi mystic poet Jelaluddin Rumi, who lived in the 13th century in what is now Turkey. Rumi's wildly romantic visions of life and our place in it seemed to have a special appeal to Turan.
Let me close tonight with a Rumi poem, as translated by Coleman Barks*. While Turan is no longer with us as the world counts such things, he is really still here with us all who knew him. This poem, called "Say I am You," makes that point.
*The Essential Rumi,
by Coleman Barks (Translator), Harper San Francisco, 1997;
I am dust
particles in sunlight.
To the bits of
dust I say, Stay.
I am morning
I am wind in
the top of a grove,
helmsman, and keel,
I am a tree
with a trained parrot in its branches.
The musical air
coming through a flute,
In metal. Both
Rose, and the
I am all orders
of being, the circling galaxy,
And the falling
away. What is,
[You who know Turan!] You the one
I am. Say