Faculty, staff and administrators came together Tuesday at Indiana University Northwest to mourn the recent loss of three longtime employees whose deaths have overshadowed the beginning of classes in this close-knit campus community.
One of those tragedies, the death of English professor and Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Robin Hass Birky, 41, occurred Friday, Aug. 29, the result of a catastrophic automobile accident near her home in Valparaiso. Hass Birky’s death stunned a campus that was still reeling from the deaths of two other employees, both due to natural causes, within just a few weeks.
On Friday, Aug. 15, Physical Plant employee George Adair, 46, of Hobart, passed away suddenly due to medical reasons. He had worked at IU Northwest since 1985. On Friday, Aug. 22, Director of Instructional Media Terry Lukas, Ed.D., 61, of Valparaiso, passed away at Porter Hospital, several days after undergoing serious surgery following a stroke. Lukas had worked at IU Northwest since 1978.
Three employee deaths in as many weeks have left the IU Northwest campus shaken and saddened. On Tuesday, university officials held two “healing sessions” where faculty and staff members could react to the tragedies, reminisce about their fallen colleagues, and support each other during a time of extraordinary anguish.
“We are a small campus. So what happens here happens to all of us,” Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Kwesi Aggrey told several dozen campus employees who gathered for the morning session at 10 a.m. “That’s why we need to be here to comfort one another, to say something about our fallen colleagues, or to cry if we want to.”
A second session was held in the afternoon. Also, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Diane Hodges announced that smaller sessions would be available with a counselor from the Division of Social Work later in the week for those who need them.
In addition to these informal gatherings, planning was underway Tuesday for formal memorial services to be held in honor of Adair, Lukas and Hass Birky on campus at a later date. As of Tuesday afternoon, none of those arrangements had been finalized.
Funeral services for Hass Birky will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 3, at Heartland Christian Center, 170 S. State Rd. 49, in Valparaiso. Interment will follow at Angelcrest Cemetery in Valparaiso. Spouses of Valparaiso Fire Department will host a luncheon at the Christian Center. For more information on services for Hass Birky, contact Moeller Funeral Home at (219) 462-0535, or Heartland Christian Center at (219) 462-4500.
At the morning healing session, colleagues and friends offered tearful remembrances of three beloved co-workers. All three, it was agreed, showed a genuine willingness to help others under any circumstances.
Adair, who was also a musician, was known for his long hair, laid-back attitude and helpful disposition. One of his chief responsibilities was to set up tables and equipment for campus events, of which there are many at IU Northwest. Professor of Communication Dorothy Ige, Ph.D., said that she never saw Adair lose his patience, despite the many petty frustrations inherent in such a job.
“I never heard him grumble or complain about anything,” said Ige, who served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for seven years before stepping down this summer to return to the classroom. “If you didn’t have an extension cord that you needed, he would find one for you.”
Professor Emeritus of History James Lane, Ph.D., recalled that Adair had helped to move materials from his office to the Calumet Regional Archives upon his retirement last year. A fan of rock music, Lane said he’d hoped to listen to Adair’s band perform locally.
“I’m sorry that that never happened,” Lane said.
Lukas, who was an IU graduate, worked for the university for more than 30 years. Although he had a doctorate of education in biology from Ball State University and a degree in library sciences, Lukas had become known in recent years as IU Northwest’s resident techno-expert. Many of Lukas’s colleagues came to him when they had questions about technology upgrades for their departments, and Lukas could always been counted on to whip up a quick solution to any last-minute technological problem or need.
“If Terry had a weakness, it was helping people,” Ige said. “If a person needed help, he wanted to help you. Sometimes he would really lay it on the line for people, because they needed help.”
Charlotte Reed, Ed.D., director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, said that Lukas had recently assisted her in utilizing grant money for technology purchases for her department.
“I told him, ‘I’ve got some money, and I want to spend it wisely,’” she said. “He helped me to decide what I needed, and he said, ‘By the time we’re done, you’ll have more gadgets than I do.’”
Lane credited Lukas with helping him to design and publish 20 issues of “Steel Shavings,” Lane’s social-history periodical that delves into the lives of Northwest Indiana residents past and present.
“I could not have published ‘Steel Shavings’ without him,” Lane said.
Library Director Tim Sutherland, Ph.D., recalled Lukas’s ceaseless devotion to all things Apple.
“He kept the Mac and Apple computers alive on our campus for quite some time,” Sutherland said. “He would always hold sessions to show us whatever was new with Apple, so we were always pretty well informed about that.”
As for Hass Birky, who died from injuries sustained when a semi truck hit her vehicle on Friday morning as she was headed to Indianapolis for a meeting at IUPUI, friends and colleagues on Tuesday were still grappling with the reality of what had occurred.
“Somehow, you expect to see her walking in here with a stack of folders and a coffee cup in one hand,” said Aggrey, invoking an image of Hass Birky that was familiar to anyone who knew her.
Margaret Skurka, director of the Health Information Technology program at IU Northwest, recalled seeing Hass Birky twice on the Monday before the accident. One of those instances, ironically enough, was at Lukas’s wake, she said. Skurka said that Hass Birky was in high spirits and enthusiastic about upcoming projects and programs, including the annual book discussion group that she organized each fall.
“She was happy and really seemed at the top of her game,” Skurka said.
Reed spoke movingly of Hass Birky’s Christian faith, a side of the popular teacher and administrator that her friend said might have been unfamiliar to some on campus.
“She knew that the way you get through situations like this is to hold on to what you believe in,” Reed said. “That part of her touched some of you, and you didn’t even know it. It was her faith that made that big smile and that bright and inviting personality possible.”
Alice Chess, English department secretary, summed up the feelings of the campus in the wake of three tragic and untimely deaths.
“Yes, we know that we all will have to face death some day,” she said. “But it’s devastating when it’s unexpected.”
“They were all good people,” Lane added. “I’ll miss them terribly.”
More information about memorial services for Adair, Lukas and Hass Birky will be announced as it becomes available. Anyone wishing to share their memories of George Adair, Terrence Lukas or Robin Hass Birky may visit the Web at http://www.iun.edu/~newsnw/loss.shtml.