Quotes and recollections from colleagues of Mete Sözen

Mete Sözen

CEE at Illinois thanks Cathy French for assembling the following recollections by colleagues of Mete Sözen.

If you have memories of Mete that you would like to share with us, please fill out this form.

M. Saiid Saiidi

PE, Professor
University of Nevada, Reno
MS 77, PhD 79

On a freezing cold January day in 1976 when the spring semester began, the instructor walked in a rustic class room with squeaky floors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with some 30 or so students waiting to see what is to be learned in a second concrete design course. He took off his wool hat and his leather jacket, took a quick but curious look at the students, and started his lecture: “A contractor’s definition of top reinforcement is any bar that is above the bottom reinforcement.”

This was the first meeting of the first course I took at U. of I. and about a year before I started working with Mete.  The instructor did not fit my preconceived image of a professor in the US, so I thought the gentleman must be a substitute.  I did not know that he was THE Mete Sozen!

Despite not recognizing him, his very first sentence struck a chord with me and fit well with my brief experience in design and construction in Iran.  I truly enjoyed his thought provoking teaching for the entire semester.

A few years later as I tried to use my notes from that class in preparing to teach a similar course at the University of Nevada, Reno, I was shocked to find so little in my course notebook.  “Why did I think this was the best course I have ever taken?”  I asked.  This question says it all about Mete—he was beyond teaching “nuts and bolts”—he wanted us to think and question, see the big picture.  And he did not stop at the technical arena.  He told me about the importance of the powerful method of communicating: “Simple and Direct,” an excellent book Mete recommended to tackle many of common pitfalls in writing.  I have passed on the simple and direct way of writing to all my research assistants.

Mete told me about the Atlantic Monthly (now “The Atlantic”), a rich magazine with outstanding thoughtful, well researched articles of the most relevant issues of our world.  I have subscribed to it since my days at U. of I, and given subscription gifts to my children.

Bi-weekly gatherings in Mete’s basement on Thursday afternoons listening to technical seminars and the thought provoking discussions that followed while enjoying food and drinks were yet another venue for us to expand our horizons and thinking in a setting away from the office environment.  Mete’s open arms in nurturing us intellectually was not limited to his office.  He welcomed us to his home.

Mete’s legacy and the profound impression he had on me and his other former research assistants have multiplied affecting graduate students around the world.  We, as Mete’s first generation of students, have passed on to our students the way of technical inquiries, communicating, expanding our view beyond the technical world, and creating a welcoming sense of community.  Our former students are doing the same now.  

What an experience it was to have Mete as my mentor!  My only regret is not to have stayed longer at U. of I. to learn more from him and enjoy more of his nurturing

Timothy Sozen

I really worry about telling stories about him. He did not go in for self-aggrandizement at all. He hated titles (couldn’t stand it if someone persisted in calling him "Professor Sozen" in a conversation) and never told us, the family, about awards or honorary degrees. I knew from others that he was respected in the engineering community but never from him. So if these stories sound like bragging, please chalk it up to their being told through the filter of a son’s admiration. Honestly he hardly talked about work. I don't know if I would have known about this first incident at all if I hadn't asked him why he had taken my metronome to work with him.

In late October of 1983, uncharacteristically, the university football team was doing very well. They had met and defeated two of the three nationally ranked Big 10 teams and it looked like the only obstacle to a Rose Bowl appearance would be the game against  the third, Michigan. Things looked very bright indeed, however there was a small but very dark cloud: During the recent sold-out game against Ohio State in Champaign, the crowd had been lively, and people in the east balcony were reporting a lot of movement, some claimed as much as a foot, particularly during chants. The big match with Michigan at the end of the month would be a home game. And it would be televised.

Of course this put the administration and the athletic department into a panic, and somehow Dad ended up being asked to come out and take a look. Apparently he was met at the stadium not only by the facilities managers but also by several very concerned deans and other higher-ups -- he didn't tell me who or how many, but I always imagine seven or eight in suits, looking very nervous. Rather than making an inspection underneath the balcony, Dad took the whole group upstairs. He wound up the metronome, set it going, and asked everyone present to jump in time. They must have thought he was crazy. I just love this image, though: Dad, standing by the metronome, cheering on this dance troupe of very worried university administrators.

Adjusting the metronome, he eventually found the period of the balcony, and from this managed to locate the failure. It was repaired in time for the game against Michigan.

[Illinois won and went on to play in a Rose Bowl game which was notable, a little research shows, in that it was the sixth highest scoring game in the series up to that time. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_Rose_Bowl)]

* * *

The evening before my first day as a TA at Illinois, Dad, perhaps sensing disaster, took me to our basement room in which he occasionally held seminars and asked me to stand at the chalkboard and teach him something.

He told me two things I remember well: Teaching is listening. (A corollary to his mantra "Listening is always better than talking.") He said I should always have my ear tuned to the “middle” of the class and not give in to the urge to talk only to the students who are getting the material easily and asking lots of questions, or worry overly much about the ones who didn't prepare for class and are completely lost. If you do you'll lose nearly everyone else, he said.

But what was probably more memorable about that meeting was that before I got a word out of my mouth he stopped me and said "Don't raise your eyebrows." What? "Don't raise your eyebrows. It makes you look pompous and condescending. It makes you look like you don't know what you're talking about. Now start again." The next five minutes consisted of my trying to explain Newton's Second Law, and his interjecting "eyebrows!". It was exasperating, but I think in the end very good advice. Whenever he explained something to me, technical or otherwise he was not condescending, and he did not act like an expert. It was never like he was the teacher and I was the student, it was just two people talking about something.

* * *

There is some story I don't know in detail, about an embassy in, I think, north Africa somewhere, although the location isn't really relevant. A crack had developed in a concrete floor and was getting worse at an alarming rate. They flew Dad in to look at it. When he saw the shape of the crack it just didn't make sense to him and, at a loss, he asked them what was below, on the lower floor? A support they replied. Where is the support, he asked them. Under the crack, of course. Otherwise the floor would collapse. Dad realized as probably most people reading this do already that the original crack was due to settlement and nothing to worry about, but  the support underneath was not allowing the floor to move with the building naturally and was making the crack worse. After several rounds of "Remove the support." "We can't remove the support!" they finally did as he asked, and the crack disappeared as if by magic. He said he felt a little like a faith healer.

* * *

The night of the teaching lesson Dad suggested – I thought he was kidding at first – a way to break the ice the first day of class, which in the end worked very well. He said I should take some cards from the board game "Trivial Pursuit," which we had in the house, and announce soberly before I called the roll  that the Physics Department had instituted a new policy of screening students on the first day of class. Accordingly, I would be going down the roster, asking each student a question, and he or she could earn a place in the class by answering correctly. Otherwise, it would be necessary for him or her to go upstairs to the registrar's office and find something more appropriate. Naturally, the announcement was followed by gasps and curses and I think it was a minor miracle that no one walked out. The mood, of course, changed once I started asking the questions, which were about state capitals, movies, unusual animals, etc.

Anthony Fiorato

Retired, Portland Cement Association
PhD 71

Beyond technical knowledge, I believe one of his greatest gifts to me was his insistence on clear communication. I learned so much from Mete about the importance of words and language. I also learned about the need for clear presentations. (Remember the grad student gatherings at his home where we took turns presenting our work - and defending our presentations.) To this day (almost 50 years since leaving the U of I), whenever I write a paper or give a presentation, a voice in my head keeps saying “Would Mete approve?”. Talk about impact.

Mete was an absolute master at reducing very complex problems to simple and understandable concepts. He will rightfully be remembered for his tremendous technical contributions to behavior and design of concrete structures. However, his legacy is much broader. 

In response to the above:

Shunsuke Otani

Professor (retired)
University of Tokyo, Japan
PhD 73

Whenever I saw you not in front of Mete, you always mentioned this story that 'Whenever I write a paper or give a presentation, a voice in my head keeps saying “Would Mete approve?".’ 

I shared the same feeling at the end of my routine course lectures and also special lectures at conferences. I am retired and am not working in professional life, and fortunately I do not have this experience any more.

Jack P. Moehle, NAE

Ed Diane Wilson Presidential Chair in Structural Engineering
University of California - Berkeley
PhD 80

As all of us have probably experienced, Mete was not just a mentor for graduate study and research, he was a mentor for life. He regularly would appear in the audience at a speech, or would show up by phone or email, with a thoughtful comment or question, usually kindly put, that maybe there was another way to think about the problem at hand. We didn't have to agree, but thinking about the problem in that other way enriched my thinking throughout my career.

Catherine Wolfgram French

CSE Distinguished Professor
Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering
University of Minnesota
PhD 84

Mete was an incredible mentor and advisor. As a student, I remember him often coming across the hallway to his research group’s offices, posing interesting problems to us that he was working on, and valuing our input (I often wondered if he was testing us—one never knew!). He encouraged us to become involved in professional technical activities and introduced us to other leaders in the field (many of whom were his former students!). He challenged us to deeper thinking and found beauty in simplicity—getting at the crux of the issues. He was an outstanding writer. To this day when I publish a paper, I always wonder what Mete would think of it; it causes me to undergo countless iterations before submitting the paper—and even then I don’t feel it is quite good enough. He was a Renaissance Man--well versed in literature, history, the arts, and current events. We learned so much from him and continued to learn from him throughout our careers. I don’t believe that there has ever been or will be another teacher/mentor/advisor who could hold a candle to him. He was truly one of a kind. Over the years whenever I have had the occasion to have contact with another of his former students—we always reflect on how incredibly fortunate we have been to have had Mete as our mentor and advisor.

Arturo Schultz

Professor and Director of MAST Laboratory
Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering
University of Minnesota
PhD 86

The most remembered teachers throughout human history have been those who have captured the essence of their teachings in simple, often whimsical, statements. Mete, whom we recognize as an incredibly accomplished teacher, had many such quotes.

One of my favorites of Mete's quotes is "If you are going to be wrong, be wrong the easy way." To me, one of the messages in this quote concerns the manner in which we treat uncertainty in (earthquake) structural engineering, particularly when we expend a great deal of theoretical complexity and computational effort to obtain little, if any, additional accuracy in our predictions of structural response.

I see Mete's quote as a corollary to Albert Einstein's statement on simplicity: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." I bring up Einstein's quote because I believe that that the closure includes Mete's philosophy: Mete was not suggesting sloppiness in our calculation, only what is necessary.

Ricardo Lopez

University of Puerto Rico
PhD 88

Mete was an exceptional person who lived a life of service to mankind. We will miss him.

Roberto Stark

Mexico City, Mexico
Ph.D. 88

Mete was a very strong man and the greatest advisor that someone can have. All my professional life has been influenced by him. Every time that I have to make an important decision I think of what Mete could have done in this situation. Or when I need to give a presentation, I always count the slides and check the time.

JoAnn Browning

Dean, College of Engineering
University of Texas at San Antonio
PhD 98 (Purdue)

Mete had a way of making every project, and every thought, seem important.  He made students, faculty, and honored guests feel welcome at all occasions.  And life was much more exciting in his company.

Santiago Pujol

Professor of Civil Engineering and Academic Director for Research Computing
Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University
PhD 02 (Purdue)

Mete went out of his way to make staff and workers feel appreciated as few of us do.  And to me, his most impressive ability (besides his unfathomable power to see simplicity in complexity) was his skill to teach people how to think clearly on their own.

James K. Wight

F.E. Richart, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering
University of Michigan
PhD 73

Probably one of Mete's favorite quotes when one of his Ph.D. students had overlooked something or gone a step too far was, "Well Doc, have you thought about ..."  I'm sure all of us (or at least most of us) heard this a few (many) times.  

In response to the above:

Michael Kreger

Garry Neil Drummond Endowed Chair in Civil Engineering
Director, Large-Scale Structures Laboratory
Associate Director, UA Center for Sustainable Infrastructure
University of Alabama
PhD 83

I heard this question numerous times as a student… and it continued after graduation.  The only thing that ceased was “Doc”.  It was replaced with Michael.

Sharon L. Wood, NAE

Dean and Professor
Cockrell Family Chair in Engineering #14, Cockrell School of Engineering
The University of Texas at Austin
PhD 86

I definitely heard that hundreds of times.  I also learned why I should never use “hopefully” in technical writing.

Adolfo Matamoros

Peter T. Flawn Distinguished Professor
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of Texas at San Antonio

A couple of quotes by Hardy Cross that Mete brought up often:

“Most literature in the structural field deals with strength and stability for the very good reason, not always obvious to the amateur, that if a structure is not sufficiently strong, it makes little difference what other attributes it has. One might almost say that its strength is essential and otherwise unimportant.”

“Any fool can ask a question that the wisest cannot answer, but more important, only the very wise can ask questions in such a way that any fool can answer them”

Marc Eberhard

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of Washington
PhD 89

In 1999, he wrote: “In the practice of engineering, simplicity is almost always better than complexity, but not all engineers think so and it takes rare genius to understand the full complexity of a problem and charity to make it simple for others.”  At that time, he was writing to praise a retiring colleague, but this perspective was clearly his own too.

Andres Lepage

Associate Professor
Director of Laboratories
Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering
The University of Kansas, Lawrence
PhD 97

The 40-word Abstract of Mete’s 1999 “The Simplicity of Complexity” gives it in a nutshell:

“In the practice of engineering, simplicity is almost always better than complexity, but not all engineers think so and it takes rare genius to understand the full complexity of a problem and charity to make it simple for others.”

S. Tanvir Wasti

Although I was not a student of Professor Mete Sözen, we knew each other since 1973 and met whenever he visited his friends and former students at Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey. I also listened to his presentations at various Technical Conferences and Workshops in Turkey over the years and, in the last two decades of his life, frequently exchanged e-mails with him – usually on non-technical matters, covering wide areas of history, culture and language.

This vignette of Mete Sözen must be familiar especially to his Turkish friends, as I have heard it both in a company where he was present as well as on other occasions. I would, at a guess, place the time period for the story in the 1990s.

After a severe earthquake somewhere in Central or South America, Mete Sözen was asked by the U.S. State Department to fly immediately to the location concerned to investigate the extent of structural damage to the U.S. diplomatic mission buildings. This journey took place on a military aircraft presumably carrying some relief supplies. Apart from the pilot and a couple of crew members, Mete Sözen was the only person on board; however, the State Department had thoughtfully arranged for an Alsatian sniffer hound also to be taken along to help with the rescue of any injured or trapped people who might be in the disaster area. The dog had been brought over to the U.S. from Germany where it had been trained for such rescue and recovery missions.

The long journey by night in the poorly pressurised airplane was both noisy and uncomfortable for Mete Sözen, but the Alsatian became extremely restive and unruly. He began to run from the cockpit area to the tail of the plane and jump about. All attempts by the crew members to control or pacify the Alsatian failed. In spite of their feeding him well, all shouts of ‘Stop!’ or ‘Sit!’ or ‘Lie down!’ were ignored by the dog. I shall complete the rest of the story in the words of Mete Sözen:

It occurred to me after a little thought that in Germany, where a lot of my poor Turkish countrymen had gone to seek employment, it was quite likely that the dog’s trainers and handlers had been Turks. So I looked at the dog and shouted in Turkish: ‘Dur!’ [Stop!] and ‘Otur!’ [Sit!] and later ‘Yat!’ [Lie down!], whereupon the beast turned almost into a mild purring kitten and soon laid himself down gently to rest after his exertions. I felt a strange mixture of joy and melancholy. Here, on an official plane from the U.S., the Earthquake Engineering Expert sent by the State Department, as well as the dog brought over from Germany and sent from Chicago to rescue lives, communicated only in Turkish!

Mete Sözen had a Turkish core, but he belonged to the whole world. R.I.P.