Professor Ali Ozluk assigned his students a four-part proof in an abstract math class in February.
He worked through the first three parts with them in class, and then he told Jennifer Lilieholm, a first-year mathematics student, and her classmates that they should try to solve the fourth part on their own over spring break.
He promised to show them the solution when they came back on Monday, March 12.
But a week before classes resumed, Lilieholm and her classmates received an email from the department. It said Ozluk had died unexpectedly.
“I cried for an hour,” Lilieholm said, remembering when she received the email. “It was a real shock.”
Jody Page, a third-year education student, got the email on his smartphone while out with friends.
He said his face must have shown how upset he was, because his friends immediately asked if he was OK. He said yes but let them read the email rather than describe what had happened.
“I was just in shock,” Page said. “I was trying to piece it together, because the day before, we were emailed telling us to give [the department] a copy of our syllabus.”
When the students returned to class on Monday, David Bradley, the department chair, greeted them. He had taken over the class for the remainder of the semester, on top of his already crowded schedule.
Sitting in Neville Hall’s Room 206 on Friday waiting for that 9 a.m. class to begin, Page and Lilieholm remembered Ozluk, who began teaching at UMaine in 1987, as one of their favorite professors.
“The way he taught, he would write down like everything he said, too. He’d fill up this board multiple times a class,” Page said, waving his hand toward the front of the room. “He was one of the few professors who actually seemed like he liked his job.
“He enjoyed what he did. He liked kids.”
Ozluk, 59, died on March 1 after collapsing at his Norfolk Street home in Bangor. The Bangor Police Department received a call for medical assistance at his address at 7:33 p.m. that evening. A neighbor noticed Ozluk’s car had been running in the driveway for several hours and called the police, according to Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards. Ozluk died before officers arrived.
According to Sgt. Chip Hodges, Ozluk’s body will be examined since there is “no obvious cause of death,” and the detective division has been assigned the case. However, Hodges did not indicate that there was any foul play in Ozluk’s death.
Jeff Hecker, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, informed Bradley of Ozluk’s death the next day. Beyond telling his students and coworkers, they kept news of his death private until his family could be informed. Ozluk, a native of Turkey, had no family in America, and his family in Europe was difficult to contact.
Tamara Mitchell, interim assistant vice president for Human Resources, said the office was contacted by the Turkish consulate to find information on his next of kin.
“We really didn’t know what had happened. We heard what everyone heard on campus, which was he didn’t come to work,” Mitchell said. “I do know that it caught everybody off guard.”
Contacting the family was especially difficult, Bradley said, because of a language barrier between university spokespeople and Ozluk’s relatives.
Two Turkish Ph.D. students who work in the AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center were finally able to contact Ozluk’s sister, Fatma Gulgun Ozluk, in Izmir, Turkey, by phone and get contact information for her son Mert Alp, who works in Germany as a physicist and speaks English. He is now handling Ozluk’s affairs.
“We are not very close friends, but we respect him,” said Alper Kiziltas, who works with nanocomposites. “He was always willing to help the Turkish community here.”
Kiziltas remembered Ozluk as a distinguished educator who still held an advising position at his home school in Turkey.
“He finished three majors at the same time, and he got the record there,” Kiziltas said, adding that Ozluk’s record remains unbroken.
“He was really great, helpful and the kindest person,” said Nadir Yildirim, who works with aerocells. “I wish I had met with him before.”
Although a family member has now been contacted, it will still be difficult to coordinate Ozluk’s affairs due to the distance between Germany and the United States.
“If I remember, he has more than 10,000 books in his home right now, and I don’t know how we’re going to take care of them,” Kiziltas said.
Dean of Students Robert Dana and the Student Affairs office also stepped in to help ease the difficulties before Ozluk’s family was contacted.
“The police had called and said his oil tank was nearly empty … so we stepped in to give some emergency oil,” Dana said. “We couldn’t find his sister, so why have the house freeze?”
An informal memorial for Ozluk was held on Monday.
“There was a surprising number of people there,” Bradley said, adding that the room for the gathering held at least twice the 24 people it was designed to accommodate. “I hadn’t even made a campuswide announcement.”
Without a standard to use to gauge his actions, Bradley wasn’t always sure what the best route was for handling the situation.
“I think it was just people trying to employ common sense,” he said. “Oftentimes, the bureaucratic route is not the best.”
Including Ozluk, the Department of Mathematics and Statistics has lost four professors this year. One retired, another left for a new job and the third stepped down in the fall. Ozluk’s death comes at a time when the department was already straining to accommodate every student who needed to take a math course.
“It’s been a big hit to the department,” Bradley said.
In an email, Bradley wrote that 28 percent of lost faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from 2004 to 2010 were from his department, despite the fact that it accounted for only 8 percent of the college’s tenure-stream faculty, which made the losses of talent all the more troubling.
“At the same time, Mathematics and Statistics generated 40 [percent] more student credit hours than the next highest ranked department on campus. The high ratio of students to math faculty puts students at a great disadvantage, since mathematics is typically one of their most difficult subjects,” he wrote. “Most people studying mathematics require a good deal of individual attention from faculty in order to succeed.”
Bradley said a campus-wide memorial service would likely be planned after Ozluk’s death was formally announced by the university, which he expected in the coming days.
“It’s an awful, terrible loss. He was on the hiring committee that hired me when I came here,” Bradley said. “Whenever I got stuck on a research problem, I would go to Ali, and he’d always come up with an idea.”
Ozluk’s body will be sent home to Turkey, where a funeral was planned for this past weekend.
“His family have applied for visas to come to the United States to share memories with friends and colleagues, collect his personal effects, and settle the affairs relating to his estate,” Bradley wrote.
Lilieholm and Page are unsure how the remainder of the semester will go.
“I don’t want to take [the class] without him,” Page said.
And that proof? Lilieholm said Bradley picked up where Ozluk left off, working through the four-part problem again, but she could see the rest of the semester wouldn’t be the same.
“He did it completely different,” Lilieholm said.