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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

Mourning professor Uhran: A life lived the Notre Dame way

On Oct. 2, senior associate dean emeritus and professor emeritus of computer science and engineering John Uhran passed away at age 87. His academic achievements were many, among them was bringing computer science to Notre Dame, but my memories of professor Uhran are more personal.Like an increasing number of Domers, I was the first in my family to attend college. My parents had always been grounded, hard-working, blue-collar people oriented toward navigating the daily struggles of working-class life with as much stoicism as they could muster. But when the oversized "Welcome Home" envelope from Notre Dame showed up in the mail, their typically guarded emotions rose to the surface. That letter was a promise of a better tomorrow, not just for me, but for us all. In the weeks preceding Welcome Weekend, my father rented a car and made some careful calculations to budget for the gas between Massachusetts and Indiana. He realized that there wouldn’t be any money left for a hotel. Rather than committing to sleep in our rented van, I called my mentor from the Notre Dame Club of Greater Boston. He knew a guy who was friends with professor Uhran. He planned to be out of town during Welcome Weekend for a conference and sent me a simple email: “Welcome to Notre Dame! You’ll find my address below. The key will be under the doormat. Make yourselves at home.” A complete stranger offering us access to his house? My father and I were grateful but leery. People from the Boston area aren’t exactly known for their hospitality, so this caliber of kindness was new to us. My father and I left Massachusetts and headed west toward the cornfields of Indiana. When our 16-hour journey finally culminated in South Bend, we found ourselves outside a nice house in a nice neighborhood near a nice golf course. As we cautiously approached the front steps, the door suddenly opened and there appeared our gracious host, smiling expectantly. Uhran’s conference plans had changed and so we didn’t have to spend the night alone. It was late when we arrived and Uhran promptly led us upstairs to the guest rooms. The beds were neatly made. There were fresh towels stacked in the bathroom. Bookshelves filled with handsomely bound volumes of classic literature sat in the corner of each bedroom. Talk about surreal! (My father and I actually thumbed through some of the books, wanting to see if they were real or simply props.) The next morning, we awoke to the sounds and smells and sights of something straight out of an episode of "Leave it to Beaver." Uhran was reading a newspaper near the fireplace while his wife Sue arranged the table for breakfast. There was toast and fruit and pancakes and orange juice — a real spread. We sat down and Sue brought over a jar of homemade raspberry preserves for our toast. It was one of the nicest, most wholesome moments of my life. Jump ahead a few months later: My first semester at Notre Dame wasn’t going well. The adjustment was difficult, the classes were brutal and I had no idea what I was doing. Professor Uhran sent me an email right after fall break asking me to meet him in LaFortune for coffee. We found a booth and — always an ambassador for his department — he asked if I had any interest in engineering. I went on an emotional rant about how lost I felt. He listened patiently and, when I was done, he smiled and simply said: “Follow your interests and it’ll get better.” He was right. I ended up majoring in Anthropology and last year earned my master’s degree in management from Mendoza. Taking the Home Under the Dome tagline perhaps too literally, I found a job here in South Bend and now live just a mile from campus. Regretfully, I didn’t keep in close contact with professor Uhran over the years, but I’ve always tried to live up to his embodiment of the Notre Dame way — a philosophy of life characterized by servant-leadership, compassion and paying it forward. For current students who are struggling to find their way, I’ll extend to you the same advice that professor Uhran gave to me in the fall of 2014: Find a passion and follow it as far as you can. If you do that, the rest will fall into place. And down the line, when you’re able to do so, I encourage you to pay it forward. You never know how big a small gesture will feel to those in need of some kindness. Rest in peace to professor John Uhran, one of the many Domers who changed my life for the better. 

Nicholas A. Furnari

BA ‘18, MS ‘22

Oct. 23

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.