Dr. Varghese Devassy Pynadath: the Man and his Legacy

G lifetime given to duty, dedication, responsibility, ethics, integrity, and love is an abbreviated version of the meticulous life of Dr. Varghese Devassy Pynadath. It is easy to imagine him chuckling at this grandiose description of himself.  He was the most unassuming of all the people I have come across in my life and the most effective in all his undertakings. Before his untimely demise, he managed to leave some indelible footprints.

As we knew him as Varghese, let us speak of him so.

Varghese was the second son of Devassy Varkey and Elizabeth (Elya Nalkara) Pynadath of Karukutty.  His mother passed away when he was a little more than three years old.  His father, brother, and he made up his family. He attended the St. Joseph’s Primary School in Karukutty and matriculated from Mar Augustine Memorial High School in Koratty.  He completed his Intermediate in Joseph’s College, Thiruchirapally, and received his BSc in Physics in 1958 from St. Albert’s College, Ernamkulam.  Both institutions were under the University of Madras in those years. His MSc in Physics was from the Sardar Vallabhai University, Anand, Gujarat.

Very soon, Varghese elected to further his studies in the US.  In 1961, he came to New York City and enrolled in Fordham University and secured his MS in Physics.  He continued his graduate work and was doing research in solid state physics at Adelphi when the field of education swam into his vision.  He was offered a Teaching Assistant’s position during his graduate work.  The rest is history.  Varghese comes from a family tradition of education.  His maternal grandfather was a schoolteacher and his brother, P. D. Ouseph, is a retired math Professor and Principal of Bharatha Matha College in Thrikkakara near Ernakulam.

City life did not hold much attraction for Varghese.  He lived at first in Bronx and later in Garden City and yearned for country life.   In 1967, he accepted a faculty position to teach Physics and Engineering Science at the fairly new Fulton-Montgomery Community College (FMCC) in Johnstown in Upstate New York. This was a career that lasted almost forty-six years, an unprecedented feat in this institution which is about to mark its half century.

In its infancy, FMCC was still conducting its classes in the old Johnstown High School building while the new campus was being built.  Varghese was the only person in the field of Physics.  This opened up several possibilities to a goal-oriented Varghese.  He was in a position to plan courses and curriculum along with designing an ultra modern laboratory.  He did just that. He was careful in managing the allotted funds for his labs and was able to upgrade them by clinical management.  The AS in Engineering Science was his to mold.  The program has lasted till his departure.

Education became Varghese’s life.  He was the quintessential educator.  One has to be a great optimist to be a student-centered educator.  Varghese believed in a systematic and unifying approach that provided students with many opportunities to improve their conceptual learning and performance in the academe.  As years went by, he continued to develop many courses that formed a firm foundation for not only Engineering Science but also for other majors, in addition to the courses for non-science majors.  He believed in science literacy for all.  Along with the three physics courses, he taught Mechanics (Statics and Dynamics), Electric Circuits, Materials Science, Science, Technology & Society, and Environmental Physics. He adjusted his lessons for the changes taking place among the student milieu.  Even when he could have taught upper level courses, he chose to teach the incoming freshmen in order to provide them with a solid foundation for further college courses.  But, he never sacrificed the high standards he maintained and was insistent on academic integrity. Some of the students rating their professors acknowledged that he may be hard, but one learned more in his classes and he was always available if help was needed.

Varghese was interested in interdisciplinary courses and integrated learning.  So, he developed courses like “Science, Technology & Society” and “Environmental Physics” especially for those who suffered great anxiety about science and technology.  He believed that students deserved to be comfortable with these subjects which have become essential to their lives in the modern age.

In his new field of education, Varghese recognized the use of computers in classrooms.  To enhance his techniques, in 1971, he attended the summer institute at the Illinois Institute of Technology to augment his teaching and the efficacy of his labs.  He did not waste his opportunities and made sure that he practiced the new knowledge he acquired by including at least one computer programming language, FORTRAN, as a required course in those early days.

Varghese’s efforts in the academic world were acknowledged when, in 1979, he received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. He became a full Professor of Physics and Engineering and continued his professorial duties till 1985.  In addition to teaching, he served in many committees and leadership positions.  He was the Advisor for International Students and had many international dinners held at the college and at home.  He tried to invite as many people as possible for these dinners.  It was important for him that the college kept a meticulous standard and maintained precise academic policies.  He served as the Chairman of the Academic Standards Committee for almost ten years.  A lot of the current policies at FMCC came into effect in those years.  For example, students were weaving in and out of courses willy-nilly without any repercussions.   He worked towards crafting a clear, but definitive policy towards withdrawing from and dropping courses and the step-by-step academic and financial liabilities involved.

Varghese, eventually, came to realize that,  in order to transform FMCC effectively, he had  to be in a position of authority.  With that thought in mind, he had already garnered a PhD in college administration from the University of Sarasota in 1971. His dissertation was titled, The Present Status and Future of Physics at Public Two Year Colleges.  He accepted the position of FMCC’s Dean of Arts and Sciences in 1985 and continued till 1996 when he resumed the position of Professor and went back to his first love of teaching.

Varghese believed that the community colleges will serve the students better if their degrees are transferrable to the four year colleges or universities, without losing credits, and if they can continue their education in the Junior level.  Until this period, FMCC did not emphasize the transferability of their courses.   He believed in the concept of a community college as an institution that opens up doors for those who were hitherto unable to obtain higher education degrees.  He perceived the community college as an affordable transfer institute to four year colleges and universities. He spent his years as Dean to communicate with other colleges and maintained dialogues with other college administrators.  He reached agreements with these colleges to accept students with the AS or AA degrees from FMCC to Junior levels without dropping any FMCC-acquired credits.  This saved the students from disputes about the acceptability of their courses.  FMCC’s desirability and esteem rose with this action.  According to the then Vice President of the college, Dr. Robert Kucek, Varghese tripled the academic programs at the college.  Some of the degree programs were the Mathematics A.S., Science A.S., and the Health, Physical Education, & Recreation A.S. and the one year programs were the Early Child A.A.S. and Human Services A.A.S., to name a few.  He was helpful in developing the college’s Television Studio and the number of courses which led to today’s Media Communications Program.

This was also the period when Varghese focused on programs to encourage girls into choosing science and math in their careers to counter some existing gender prejudices.  He received a grant to provide annual summer program for girls selected from area high schools to attend FMCC and receive math and science college credits which were transferable even to out of state institutions.  To make it easier for underage students to access the FMCC campus, the students from the two sponsoring counties were provided with transportation . The program lasted for some years.

While the academic programs were being looked after, Varghese did not forget the other duties of an administrator. In 1989, he chaired the Steering Committee for FMCC’s 25th Anniversary Celebration.  He also chaired the Middle States Steering Committee for accreditation twice in his career.  He took all the responsibility for organizing the materials in accordance with the official directives so that the process will be seamless when finally presented.  Most of his free time was dedicated for this effort even at the expense of his physical comfort.

When Varghese went back to teaching, he realized, to his dismay, that his eleven years away from classroom was long enough for changes in attitudes and academic preparedness among the new students.  But, he was ready.  He learned that the current students needed more precise instructions. He kept up with the times and upgraded his labs.  He introduced the software MATLAB to the laboratory experiments and the students were getting ready for the 21st century.  The Clean Room Technology and the nanotechnology became part of FMCC’s curricula and he was an active participant.  He never spared efforts in improving his instructional material.  Every year, he spent a great deal of his time in retooling his lessons.  He developed learning strategies for students, very clearly delineated in his website.  In all the years he had been teaching, he never repeated his tests.He came to the classroom ten minutes before the session started and wrote on the board the salient information the students should have reviewed before the class.  If anyone took the time to come early, they would be preparing for the next lecture.  His labs were times for inductive reasoning.  The data had to be presented to him by the lab partners and he would quiz them on what they learned from the empirical results.  Only if he was satisfied by their understanding would he accept the data and give his signature of approval. Only the instructor-signed data would be allowed to accompany the lab report for grade.  Thus, he managed to maintain academic integrity in the lab by pruning away the opportunities for copying data from other students.  Any student who was willing to put in the time and attend his classes had every opportunity to get a good grade.  I know this because I was mandated to take two semesters of Physics for my Computer Science degree.  It is interesting to note that, if I needed any help or to receive my final exam paper, I had to meet him at the office like any other student.  There was no special treatment for a family member!

The engineering students from FMCC were sought after by colleges like RPI and Union.  The transfer rate for his students was hundred percent.   The students transferred not only to all New York colleges and universities, but also to institutions in other states like Florida, California, Arizona, Colorado, etc. One even transferred to Harvard.  His students could be from any of the local schools including some Valedictorians or international students from Japan, the Middle East, Russia, Bulgaria, or some other European, Asian, or South American country.  Varghese wished not only for good grades for his students, but also the understanding  of what they were exposed to learn and happiness in their chosen fields.  Many of them came back to tell him of their successes and he came home with the joy he experienced in seeing them flourish.  Many ended in high positions after furthering their education in other institutions. Not being one to toot his horn, he did not keep a log of those successes.

As an academician and professional, Varghese kept up with other professionals and trends. He maintained memberships in American Physics Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Physics Teachers, American Physical Society, National Science Teachers Association, and the New York State Association of Two Year College Physics Teachers.  He published articles and abstracts in the The Journal of College Science TeachingThe Journal of Two Year College Physics, and The Physics Teacher, many pertaining to new methods and techniques.  He attended AAPT, APS, and the Association of Two Year College conferences and presented papers on diverse subjects like the practical success in the Use of Berkeley Physics at his labs, “The Consistent use of symbols in Introductory Physics”, Heat Transfer experiments, “The Trends in Physics Education in a Two Year College”, and the introduction of the interdisciplinary courses such as Science, Technology, and Society  and “Environmental Physics”(to name a few).

While the student interests were being nurtured, Varghese did not forget to try to strengthen the institution he served so assiduously.  He chaired committees for not only   the academic standards and assessments, but also for the future projects for science and technology.   His latest was the Engineering Technology Plus Project.  This was the result of an NSF grant to Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES for TEPP (Technological Education Pathways Partnership) to work in conjunction with FMCC.  The planning itself was of three year duration and he chose to retire after its completion.  The paper work for this project was enormous and the time involved was immeasurable.  Since the present emphasis is on a P – 16 vertical alignment in curriculum, it became imperative to establish a career pathway for technicians that started in the 11th  and 12th grade levels to carry through the two years at FMCC.  This project was his last footprint.

Varghese was a family man.  After his first year at FMCC, he went to India and, on August 21, 1968, we were married.  I was the fifth daughter of Prof. V. M. Joseph and Elizabeth (both of Vadakkethala family, Kandassankadavu).  I had just completed my MA in English Language and Literature (Vimala College, Thrissur) from Kerala University and had just been hired as a Lecturer at Vimala College.  It was the beginning of a married life of forty-four and a half years.  We have two sons, David and Joseph, and a daughter, Elizabeth.  Varghese instilled in his children the sense of the value of education, responsibility, and independence.  They had the option to choose the field of study and the institution of study.  It was up to them to secure the admission and he supported them throughout their studies.  As a parent, he considered education as the best gift he can bestow on his children.    The oldest, Dr. David V Pynadath, is a Research Scientist at the Institute of Creative Technologies (associated with USC) in California and does his research in Artificial Intelligence.  He has Bachelor’s degrees in both Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT and MS and PhD in Computer Science from the University of Michigan. Joseph attended Boston University and has a BS in Mechanical Engineering.  He enrolled in George Washington University for his graduate studies. He worked at INTEL, Mercury Interactive, Hewlett-Packard, and VMware and progressed from Process Engineer to Vice President.  He is married to the former Jackie Walsh and has two sons, Joshua Joseph and Jason Joseph. Joshua is playing soccer with Real Madrid’s Alevin A team for the coming year and the family has moved to Madrid. Our daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Serena Bentley, attended Cornell University, LeHigh and the University of Buffalo to secure BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering respectively and is a Research Engineer at the Air Force Research Lab at Rome, NY.  She is married to Robert Bentley and has three children, Eliana Rose, Aliyah Marie, and Elijah Davis. To Varghese, his children and grandchildren provided a great sense of joy and pride.  His familial love was deep and unconditional.

Loyalty to his family and friends was an elemental part of Varghese.  He cultivated a few friends and he held them dear.  Honesty and integrity played a role in his relations with his family and friends just as they did in his professional life.
Varghese was socially conscious and placed great importance on his community.  He believed that we should give always something back to the community we belonged to whether it is geographical or cultural.  He tried to shop locally as much as possible.  He donated to charitable organizations such as the Habitat for Humanity, March of Dimes, the Jeevan Fund, etc and WMHT.  He gave financial assistance to the Johnstown Public Library and was very generous to the Fulton County YMCA and FMCC Foundation.   He supported these organizations and institutions because they strove for the common good of the people.  He did not stop at financial assistance to community organizations. In the 70’s when Gloversville’s Bishop Burke Catholic High School was at the point of giving up, he tried to pump some blood into this institution by volunteering his time to teach physics.  He did it for one year, but the end was in sight for that school.  He served as the President of the Literacy Volunteers of America of Fulton County for two terms.  He was a member of the Capital District Malayalee Association and was active at the inception and coordinating of the Jeevan Fund and was a member in its seminal Board.  If weather permitted, he always attended the cultural activities.  He enjoyed his time with his Malayalee friends at these functions and at the India Bazaar.  He was also a member of the TRICIA.
Varghese had a great sense of humor and could have been a stand-up comedian.  At retirement gatherings, his speeches sent the audience to roll in the aisles. I was slow in catching his dry sense of humor and it gave him extra pleasure to see how long it took me to appreciate his wit.  He enjoyed music and the whole house was gently resonating with music.  His musical tastes were eclectic.  They ranged from Gregorian Chants to Bhajans and from Malayalam movie songs to Beetles.  He enjoyed programs at Proctors and the SPAC and derived great pleasure from musical programs, ballets, and performances of Shakespeare and Company and such.  He preferred light musicals and comedies.  James Bond movies were always welcomed.  He had no interest in TV, but listened to the radio news broadcasts and music. He read avidly from a range of publications spanning from scientific journals and news magazines to ‘The Evangelist’. He was good with plants and was proud of his ‘green thumb’. He loved flowers, especially roses.  When the roses were in bloom, he used to point them out to me and teased, “I never promised you a rose garden, yet here it is”.

Varghese was very neat and tidy.  He took care in organizing everything.  All his paperwork and documents are neatly labeled and filed.  His closets and dresser drawers were organized.  He did not have to search for anything.  They were exactly where he placed them.   He was punctilious and meticulous.  He took care to dress with decorum and taste.  In college, he was known as the best dressed Faculty member.  He always followed strict diets and exercises and always followed the doctors’ orders.

I only recounted what I knew before Varghese’ demise.  It was gratifying to find out more and more about the impact of his influence even after his passing.  I encountered people who spoke about the students whom he trained and who had taken important roles in the new industries and high tech companies like the Global Foundry moving into the area.  Someone I recently met  spoke about how Varghese made the effort to find out about the skills these companies were seeking and made his students well prepared for the new challenges.  Johnstown High School has ventured into a new phase following his strictures for energizing students towards careers with their  “Learning Center” at the former Jansen Avenue School building.

It is very hard to find words to narrate a lifetime spent in service and a person full of complexities.   He never wasted his time, bust was industrious to the core.  He was grading papers even before the ambulance was called.  Everyone saw only a very small portion of Varghese.  There was no pomposity in Varghese.  He was not concerned that people forgot to add ‘Dr.’ in front of his name.  He did not see the need to push himself forward for public notice.  He was what he was.  His thoughts were his own and he shared them when it was necessary.  He did not wish harm to anyone, but was righteous in his dealings.  He epitomized honor and dignity.  In the tribute paid by his colleagues, what became crystal clear was his kindness and geniality.  His passing away on  February 25, 2013 was sudden.  The Trustees of FMCC posthumously awarded him the Professor Emeritus status in honor of his service.  The copious tributes paid to him by co workers, administrators, and students were heartwarming and often tender.  It is appropriate that his epitaph is, “The righteous shall go into eternal life”, Matthew 25:46.  He has left a void, but love and respect for him remain.

3 thoughts on “Dr. Varghese Devassy Pynadath: the Man and his Legacy

  1. Rosy What a wonderful and complete retrospective on your husband’s life and the legacy he has left behind. I could see his smile as I read. Liz

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s