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facts & arguments

Hiremagalur K. Kesavan

Professor, philosopher, patriarch. Born on June 14, 1926, in Bangalore, India; died on Nov. 26, 2014, in Waterloo, Ont., of complications from multiple myeloma cancer, aged 88.

My father, HKK, as he was known, joined the electrical engineering department at Ontario's University of Waterloo in 1960 and would go on to become the university's first distinguished professor emeritus, known for helping to promote engineering education around the world.

He had a brilliant career, writing influential books on topics such as systems theory, but the stories he loved to tell were typical of those who came of age in India in the 1940s and 1950s, steeped in politics and social consciousness. When he was a teenager, he applied for a military post and was given a paid trip for an interview, which allowed him to detour to New Delhi so he could attend talks by Mahatma Gandhi.

Before heading to the United States for graduate studies, HKK married Rajalakshmi Rajiyengar; in 1957, she joined him at Michigan State University, where he completed his doctorate and where she became a fan of college football. They spent the late 1950s and early '60s on U.S. and Canadian university campuses, often taking road trips in a second-hand Chevy to explore the landscape and culture.

HKK's stories would bring that era to life for his children: the U.S. civil rights movement, Vietnam, the Kennedy era. He was a big fan of Pierre Trudeau, and disliked Richard Nixon. My first late-night TV experience was of falling asleep during a debate from the 1968 Democratic convention, between William Buckley and Gore Vidal, political philosophers from the right and left. HKK's friends had gathered to watch the fireworks, after first enjoying a lovely Indian meal.

After settling in at the University of Waterloo, HKK returned to India in 1964 to help launch the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. Four years later, he was back in Waterloo, to start the university's department of systems design engineering.

HKK was an active member of the Waterloo community for more than 50 years, and made sure that his daughters, Rohini, Anita and Kalpana, were integrated into a small-town academic community but were still a part of the South Asian culture. He served as a mentor to many graduate students and our home was a busy place, welcoming faculty, extended family, and visitors from India and the United States.

Our father knew from an early age that English was the global language for success. When he was 13, he would tell us, he learned English by reading and rereading the only three English novels available in his small town, and was glued to BBC Radio for English-language reports from the Second World War.

He loved theatre and was a regular at the Stratford and Shaw festivals. He would take us to see productions of plays such as Hamlet and Twelfth Night – and then would drive home reciting the grand Shakespearean speeches, much to our embarrassment. He often said that despite his career in research and academia, his first love was the liberal arts. After retiring in 1991, he became immersed in his philosophical writings and published two books about science and spirituality.

My father and I often talked about multiculturalism; he was optimistic that the social cohesion in Canada would be a model to other countries ambivalent about diversity. As for fascinating topics such as the coming Canadian federal election, the next U.S. presidential race, India's leadership, the Middle East – all will now have to be imaginary conversations with my dad, ‎my soul mate.

Anita Kesavan Srinivasan is HKK's daughter.

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