Montclair State Remembers Earth Science Professor

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Published September 26, 2015
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The Montclarion

By Kristen Bryfogle, Editor-in-Chief

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Dr. John V. Thiruvathukal, a professor in the Earth and Environmental Studies department at Montclair State University, passed away on Sept. 17, 2015. He was 77 years old.

Thiruvathukal worked in the department for 45 years before retiring during the summer of 2015. He taught oceanography courses as well as the “Earth and the Environment” general education requirement to thousands of Montclair State undergraduates and also instructed graduate students in his “Marine Geology” course. He also co-authored a book, Elements of Oceanography, and was a member of the American Geophyiscal Union.

During his time at the university, he touched the lives of many of his students, who will remember him as a kind, funny and caring professor.

Although most of his students have already graduated, several alumni who work for the university had previously taken his classes and shared memories of him.

Adjunct professor Christine Valenti, ‘95, who was a Geology minor during her undergraduate career and pursued a M.S. in Geoscience at the university, said, “Words cannot express my sadness over the passing of Dr. T. As a student, I found him to be extremely caring, compassionate and knowledgeable. Later, as a colleague, he was always very supportive and helpful. His passing is a tremendous loss and he will be sorely missed.”

In [Dr. Thiruvathukal’s] class, I saw, [for the] first time, how lively and colorful the world below 6,500 feet in depth of [the] ocean can be. His passion for the subject and great depth of knowledge made his classes engaging, interesting and showed us a new perspective on deep ocean.

-Yoko Sato, former student of Dr. Thiruvathukal

Another of his students, Yoko Sato, who graduated with a degree in Geoscience in 1998, shared Thiruvathukal’s ability to make the classroom a lively and engaging space. “Teaching Geology was much more challenging then with very limited visual help,” she said. “It was before YouTube and all these computer-generated images. In [Dr. Thiruvathukal’s] class, I saw, [for the] first time, how lively and colorful the world below 6,500 feet in depth of [the] ocean can be. His passion for the subject and great depth of knowledge made his classes engaging, interesting and showed us a new perspective on deep ocean.”

Adjunct professor Jesse Kolodin, who obtained a Masters in Geoscience from Montclair State in 2011, had Thiruvathukal as his first professor while earning his graduate degree. “Dr. Thiruvathukal was a humble man,” said Kolodin. “He provided me with the drive to explore the field of geological sciences with an open mind. His style of teaching and care for his students exemplified his true character.”

Deniz Ballero, who attended Montclair State for her undergraduate career and Master’s in Geology in 1998, even uses Thiruvathukal as an inspiration for her own teaching methods. “I fondly remember him saying often that ‘no one has ever been to the center of the Earth,’ which became his trademark,” said Ballero. “I now pass [it] on to my own students…and often! He was a memorable professor. He was funny and a very sweet man.”

[Dr. Thiruvathukal’s] passing is a loss to the scientific community, the community of Montclair State University and to those who had the privilege to know him on a more personal level.

-Demetrius Lutz, a former student of Dr. Thiruvathukal

Faculty members have also been deeply affected by Thiruvathukal’s passing. Dr. Greg Pope, a professor in the Earth and Environmental Studies department, shared his memories of his late colleague, who worked in the office next to him for 13 years. He remembered Thiruvathukal’s helpfulness to himself and other professors who entered the university around the same time as him, calling Thiruvathukal a “faculty mentor.”

Pope also remembered Thiruvathukal’s attention to faculty rights, making sure that professors in the department were being treated fairly and had the correct contracts. Additionally, he admired Thiruvathukal’s ability to make cross-departmental connections which helped the growing department make allies across campus.

Beyond offering professional advice and mentorship, however, Thiruvathukal was also a talented geologist who even enlightened his coworkers, who had experience in the field, according to Pope. “I regret not having more discussions with him, because the times we did talk about geology, I certainly learned new things,” said Pope. “He sent me some studies where he had attempted some geomagnetic survey at an archaeological site. I also remember talking about tsunamis and how they worked after the Indonesian disaster several years ago; just a few months ago, I learned that [he] was involved in the report of the great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 and he was with the National Academy of Science at the time.”

Demetrius Lutz, a graduate student who had Thiruvathukal as a professor in 2001, spoke about the legacy that Thiruvathukal left behind in the halls of Montclair State; “[Dr. Thiruvathukal] loved teaching and inspired his students to pursue their education and future careers with passion. His passing is a loss to the scientific community, the community of Montclair State University and to those who had the privilege to know him on a more personal level.”

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