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Tribute to Felix Haas


Felix Haas, Arthur G. Hansen Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and former Dean of Science and Provost, passed away on July 16, 2013. Below is a tribute from his colleague and friend, Laszlo Kovacs, retired professor and subject librarian of Purdue Libraries.

In Memoriam – Dr. Felix Haas

The 4th World Scouts Jamboree, and gathering of Boy Scouts from all over the world, was hosted by Hungary and held from August 2 to August 13, 1933. It was attended by 25,792 scouts, representing 46 different nations. The huge camp around the Royal Palace of Godollo was about 11 miles from Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

Among the young boys, just 12 years of age, representing the boy scouts from Vienna, Austria, was one promising participant. This innocent young boy was determined to fulfill his commitments as a scout, and was selected from among the many eligible scouts to travel to nearby Hungary and make life-long memories.

This scout returned to his beloved Vienna and continued studies at the local high school [Gymnasium] with the objective to complete the required comprehensive examinations [Abitur] before entering a university. Little did he know that his life would take a very different direction within a short period.

When Hitler assumed power, the political climate in Germany and Austria changed drastically. It was no longer safe for Jews to remain in Austria, and he was sent by his parents to live with his aunt and uncle in London, in 1938. One year later Phil immigrated to the United States. For the first four years, he worked in a New Jersey factory as a manual laborer and continued to acquire rudimentary English. Later he joined the Army and served in General Patton's artillery division as staff sergeant. Patton assembled a bilingual intelligence unit which provided essential logistic information on the movement of the Germans as the American army progressed into Europe. The creative mind of Felix Haas was challenged to gather vital information to his unit's advancements.

The GI Bill opened a lifetime opportunity to this American veteran when he was accepted to resume his interrupted studies at MIT. Members of the admission board were fully cognizant that the scholastic level of the Austrian high school [Gymnasium] was more advanced (and still is) than their American counterparts and wisely waved the formal diploma requirement. Thus, the education of the promising Felix Haas resumed and was nurtured by his mentors at a prominent university.

This is not the place to narrate the continuing academic achievements of Felix Haas in the years that followed. He joined the Purdue faculty in 1962 as Chairman of the Department of Mathematics.

After my appointment to the library faculty, I met Dr. Haas on a number of occasions, but as time went by we had a unique encounter in a simple outdoor setting. I was invited to participate in the programs and financial dilemmas of the International Center of West Lafayette. The Center is independent of the university, yet it performs an increasingly vital role within this diverse community. Fundraising is part of the functions of the volunteers and is performed with tact and creativity.

Each summer the Center has what is called "Tuesday Suppers" for the benefit of visiting students who stay on campus for the summer, and community residents. We volunteered to be the "sponsoring team" at these and over several years developed a kind of "following" as time went by. After several years, our Hungarian beef stew [gulyas] was one of the favorites of many returning guests.

At one of these dinners, Dr. Felix Haas also joined us and was one of the 70-80 guests, sitting around tables under the trees. As the "executive chef," I was expected to visit the guests and make my rounds among them. When I approached the table of Dr. Haas, he introduced me to members of his party and asked me to spend a little time with him. It was at that simple evening when Dr. Haas recalled that observing my large Hungarian shepherd's pots [bogracs] and tasting my beef stew, he recalled the days when he was a young scout at the 1933 Jamboree in Hungary. What a revelation! That evening, after so many decades, the memory bank of this brilliant man returned to the years of his boyhood. His eyes were sparkling as he re-lived the events of those days, the time when he was happy and carefree and looked forward to a predictable future with his family and friends. But that was not to be. Still, for a few moments the time capsule opened and returned to a time of spirited joy which only those can comprehend who experienced a similar turn-of-event at some point in life.

A few days after that simple outdoor supper, his secretary telephoned me with an invitation to a lunch—as his guest. There was no agenda, it was not a business appointment, just a sincere expression of an older man who wanted to thank me for opening up times of innocent happiness. He tactfully inquired about my parents, hometown, my escape to Vienna in 1956, when and how I came to this country, my studies and plans. We established common ground as two human beings who had drifted away from a predictable life into the unknown. He thanked me for the evening meal a few days before and asked me to send him some of my publications. He gently observed that I was also a "survivor"—a fellow sojourner and victim in the unpredictable venture of this short life.

I was more than privileged to forward to his office a few of my publications. Some time later the secretary called again asking me to visit Dr. Haas in his office. The outcome was that over time I established an uncommon collegiate friendship with him, always addressing him "Dr. Haas," an honorific academic recognition which he well deserved. To be sure, he received an invitation to every Tuesday supper thereafter.

The adventure of human life is full of unexpected events; some of them are full of regrets while others offer delightful remembrances. Exactly 80 years ago, Phil as a young scout spent a few carefree weeks in Hungary, but five years later the son of a city of high culture entered the world stage as a victim and drifted into a strange world on the other side of the globe.

He retained for life that wonderful Viennese accent, which a young fellow could not change. It is well known that girls and boys after the age of puberty may grammatically acquire another language but cannot easily alter the pronunciation patterns of their native language. (It is unfortunate that so many in this society cannot accept this simple physiological development.)

He persevered and stood the test of time. As a common laborer, as an American soldier, he never forgot his roots. American soldiers entered a continent to fight for strangers whom they never met; they fought for no bounty of their own—and they left freedom in their footsteps. We are still awed by their sacrifice and stunned by their courage. It is because of the heroism of Felix Haas and his generation that we, the citizens of this great nation, enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice and life as free men and women.

So I am deeply humbled to offer a grateful memorial to a hero, and uncommon modest man, who contributed so much to countries of Western Europe and opened up new life to untold millions. Indeed, Felix Haas was truly of the greatest generation of Americans.

Dr. Felix Haas took full advantage of academic freedom and passionately believed that education has the power to transform lives, and in so doing, widen the horizon of human experience. He represented an extraordinary generation of daring intellectuals who left their homeland during the Second World War, and with sound scholarship, contributed to a wide spectrum of human endeavor. Dr. Felix Haas joined the Purdue University faculty at the very best time, established credibility, and from zero beginnings built up departments of international distinction. Over forty years he served the academic common good and brought acclaim to this institution.

With sincere gratitude,

Laszlo Kovacs
West Lafayette, Indiana – USA
July 21, 2013

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