The world has lost a great man, a great scientist, a great engineer and a great leader, but there are many alumni who will continue working for his ideals. He can rest in peace.
Written for AGBU Impact Magazine 2022 by Laura L. Constantine.
Mihran Hagop Ohanian was born on Aug. 3, 1933 to Margarios and Katarine Mari Ohanian at his grandfather’s villa on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey. During the Armenian Genocide, Jack’s maternal grandfather, who was a poet and translator for the British, was taken and killed.
He was named after his two grandfathers, but ultimately went by the American name Jack—the future Dr. Jack Ohanian, who was instrumental in ushering in what is often referred to as the Nuclear Age.
The young Ohanian was born into a unique set of circumstances that instilled in him an international perspective. At the time, Italy offered Italian citizenship to some Armenians, which his father and grandfather acquired. This qualified Jack to hold an Italian passport from birth. Growing up in Istanbul, his German governess, Armenian grammar school, and the British High School he attended groomed him to become fluent in German, Armenian, Turkish, and English. This led him to qualify for the American-based Robert College in Istanbul, from which he graduated with high honors in 1956 with a BS in electrical engineering.
Dr. Ohanian was now ready to expand his educational horizons in America as an exchange student. He earned advanced degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and was offered a graduate assistantship and earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1960. After working at Brookhaven National Lab for several summers, he decided to switch his specialty to study nuclear engineering instead. In 1963, he received his PhD in that emerging field, and was one of three of the first graduates of the new nuclear department.
This distinction was more than just a stepping stone to career advancement. It also made it possible for him to remain in the U.S. However, as an exchange student, he was obliged to return to Turkey when his studies were completed. He had to prove that his skills were needed by the U.S. Fortunately, nuclear energy was a new field and he was teaching the subject at a state university. He was approved for a U.S. Green Card using his Italian passport and with help from then Senator Jacob Javitts. He became a U.S. citizen in 1967.
During this same period, Dr. Ohanian had already met Sandra Jean Blair at a Christian weekend at a ski resort in western Massachusetts in 1957. Neither knew how to ski, so, after many falls on the bunny slope, he invited her to join him for some hot chocolate. They married in 1962.
When the University of Florida offered him a job as an assistant professor in their new graduate program in nuclear engineering, the Ohanians moved to Gainesville, Florida. It was the beginning of a 38-year tenure, during which he was successively promoted to ultimately become dean of the College of Engineering.
By this time, the Ohanians had two daughters, Heather Jean and Holly Lynn. In the mid 1970s, the family spent time in Tennessee when Dr. Ohanian had a two-year sabbatical working at the Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge where all types of energy, including wind, thermal, solar, and nuclear, were studied.
As an active member of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) since the early 1960s, Dr. Ohanian was named a Fellow of ANS and was elected president of the American Nuclear Society in 1990. He also was the chair of the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) and many honor societies. He authored over 60 technical publications.
In addition to these achievements, Dr. Ohanian was an active member of Rotary International for over 40 years. He was awarded the Medal of Valor for saving a child from drowning in the 1960s. He worked with the Florida Defenders of the Environment to protect wilderness areas. He is listed in Who’s Who in America.
After Dr. Ohanian retired in 2001, he continued to write many op-ed articles for local and statewide newspapers on nuclear energy. Yet, it was then that he decided he wanted to learn how to cook, especially Armenian recipes. His older daughter Heather Jean commented that her father was very proud of his Armenian heritage and shared stories from his youth, including family recipes. Back in the 1970s, her parents would frequently join friends for Armenian specialties through their membership in the local Armenian Gourmet Club. “Of all the recipes, our family favorite is Manti, which my sister and I both make regularly,” Heather Jean notes. Her sister Holly Lynn adds: “I have fond memories of playing backgammon with my dad using the set he brought from Turkey. It was always competitive as we both wanted to win. I have the backgammon set now and always think of my dad when playing with my kids.”
He and Sandra were also travel enthusiasts and over the course of their marriage, managed to visit over 50 countries, including Turkey, which Dr. Ohanian had not seen in a half century. Sandra said she was blessed to have spent 49 years with such a wonderful caring man.
In 2011, Dr. Ohanian succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He was highly respected by his former students and colleagues who mourned his passing. As quoted by a former student, “The world has lost a great man, a great scientist, a great engineer and a great leader, but there are many alumni who will continue working for his ideals. He can rest in peace.” Both his daughters stated that their father was a role model for them and was intent on supporting their educational interests and those of their children. He started a fund for each of his four grandchildren to pay for their college education. Holly Lynn noted that she chose the field of engineering because of her father.
Since the 1990s, the Ohanians have been regular supporters of AGBU Senior Dining Centers in Armenia, which has benefitted all the more from the family’s generosity since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the most vulnerable in society, Armenia’s seniors still received weekly and monthly food packages and home deliveries of nutritious sustenance without missing a beat. The Ohanians are also annual supporters of the AGBU Opportunity Fund which, as an unrestricted fund, made it possible for AGBU to ramp up major humanitarian relief efforts for the thousands of Armenian refugees caught up in the 2020 Artsakh War.
This article was featured in the 2022 release of AGBU Impact Magazine. For more information on the AGBU donations, click here.