Sixty Minutes with Osaama Shehzad: Professor Marion Oliver

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Who is Marion Leon Oliver? 

Marion Oliver is one of the prodigious professors at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, and a tartan who earned his Ph.D. in 1971. But what roles does Dr. Oliver have as a son, a husband, a student, and a father? What does he love to do and what does he regret? What makes him unique? To know him beyond his aca­demic personality, Let’s walk through the exceptionally wonderful seventy-one years of his life.

“I am a product of a single mom raising me.”
With nothing but gratitude, Dr. Oliver appreciates the strict environment he was raised in by his mother only (since his parents did not get along). Upon asking if he misses his fa­ther or not, he said that “there was no bond established that would cause me to miss him” and that “I have got my mother, that’s all I need to know.”
One thing I am sure Oliver’s mother would be proud of is Oliver himself. Growing up in a divorce environment can lead to many negative changes in a child’s personality. But Oliver’s mother, Queen Elizabeth Oliver (yes, her name was as royal as her personality!) did an outstanding job in raising him into the respected and educated personality he is today.
In the strict environment he was raised in, Oliver did have mischievous childhood temptations that he satisfied when his mother was not around — temptations that got him penalized when caught. Here’s an incident that cost him a permanent injury in his left arm.

“I was probably naughty within bounds.” 

Reflecting back on our childhood, we all laugh at the embarrassing and stupid things we did, but who knew that Dr. Oliver, in his childhood, would break his arm while remaining “naughty within bounds.”

Dr. Oliver’s mother ─may she rest in peace─ had bought a new bed mattress, not knowing that it would become a victim of Oliver’s most embarrassing childhood moment of life. As amazed the young Oliver was by the new mattress, his childhood temptations kicked in, and he started going all superman on the bed. He would climb the back of his big brother and jump from there on the mattress to feel the incomparable pleasures of free fall. Even though it was risky and his mother warned him not to do it, Oliver attempted to pull out the fancy James Bond stunt again, but this time fate did not accompany him. He lost his balance while climbing his brother’s back and fell behind, breaking his arm into half. Yes, half, and it hurt a lot!

As soon as Oliver landed the floor, his inner Superman and James Bond self deserted him, and he started crying out loud in pain. Hearing the cries of young and naughty Oliver, his mother rushed to him, founding him on the floor in crucial pain. Watching his mother witnessing him in torment, poor Oliver was expecting sympathy and love, but all he got was a “shut up” full of rage and frustration. Surely, Ms. Queen was raged that Oliver did not follow her orders, but obviously her love for him did not deny him the assistance from hospital.

Oliver went to the hospital but the doctors, who were “white folks” and those were the days of racism, did not consider his broken arm worth their precious time, so they fixed it hastily and incompletely. Even to this day, Oliver cannot rotate his left arm around completely. However, that doesn’t stop him from pulling dents at 4:00 am in the morning even today at the age of 71.

So, now even though we don’t know much about Dr. Oliver, we can safely assume that he would never jump on a comfy spring mattress when he sees one after a long, tiring day. Also, there is a lesson to be learned: always obey your mother if you’re wise enough to not go looking for trouble.

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Professor Oliver showing defect in his left arm while sharing his most embarrassing moment [Credits: Syed Abbas Mehdi]

“She paid for me to take the test.” 

We all have our favorite high school teachers who we wished would be guiding us through challenging phases of life, but not all of us are lucky enough to remain in contact with them after college life grab a hold on us. However, on asking Dr. Oliver what’s the happiest memory of his life, he shared one of his favorite high school mentor, Lydia McKeldin, who’s “ninety years old now and still kicking, and she’s a fifty years survivor of breast cancer.” Surely, that should be a Guinness record of how weak cancer is when combating Dr. Oliver’s favorite mentor.

During his high school days, Oliver did not believe in himself and was unaware of academic talents he was blessed with. Fortunately, Ms. McKeldin recognized those talents in him and strived to bring them out by making him take an advanced placement test, so Oliver could become a man he is today.

This test was a sponsored program by Oliver’s favorite college which would offer early admission if the test was cleared successfully. Not only Oliver had no plans to register for it, he lacked dough to do so. However, Ms. McKeldin, who believed in Oliver’s ingenious brain, paid for the test and made him take it when he was in 10th grade.

Unaware of how his potential could be compared to other folks who were taking the test, Oliver was not really optimistic. However, he boldly went for it and to his surprise, not only he passed the test, he was offered early admission to his desired college in 10th grade.

Surprised at his own potential but realistic at the very moment, Oliver knew that he had no money to attend college two years earlier. Anxious and confused, he went to his teacher and explained this to her, and what she said displayed was one of the wisest moves a teacher could have made to prepare her student for his outstanding yet challenging future.

Ms. McKeldin told Oliver that she did not pay for the test so he could graduate earlier but it was to make him witness his own extraordinary talent, so he could start preparing himself for college. Had she not believed in him, Oliver would have never been aware of his talents and would have never reached the top of the ladder.

Following the test, Oliver began working in evenings at a clothing store for two years along with his high school to prepare himself financially for college. However, fate had not stopped favoring him yet.

After the freshman year of college, Oliver got help from Russians to pave his way, financially, through the upcoming years of college. Seeking help from Russians may kick in the common Russians-are-gangsters stereotype in your mind, but let’s be real. Oliver is cool not fool.

Coming back to how Oliver made it through college, financially, who knew that Russian’s launch of spacecraft, Sputnik, in 1957 would be beneficial to Oliver’s forthcoming success. Worried that US did not reach in space first, the US government initiated a loan program that would loan money to every college student who was studying science ─ the very field Oliver was majoring in college. So for his sophomore, junior, and senior year, Oliver got a $3000 loan (it was a LOT in 1960’s) to become a prodigy. Surely, Oliver is not only his teacher’s but fate’s favorite too.

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Professor Oliver sharing his experiences during interview [Credits: Syed Abbas Mehdi]

“The sole purpose of this visit was to ask her mother if I could marry.” 

If you’re having a hard time looking for an example of a real life till-death-do-us-part love story, you have to stop by Office 1175 at Carnegie Mellon Qatar.

Marion and Connie Oliver are an unparalleled example of an unbelievably successful marriage that lasted 43 years until Mrs. Connie met her demise in 2008 due to pancreatic cancer (may she rest in peace).

Oliver first met Connie in his freshman year of college, and this is when their spark of love (which is still glowing) lit the lantern of their romantic life.  In fact, it was only a month after graduation that they married, securing their love forever.

So how did the mighty Oliver pop the question? If he bending down on his knees with a ring in hand is the first thought that strikes your mind then you’re absolutely wrong in comprehending what kind of man Oliver is. Sure that way of proposal is romantic but it’s not outstanding. Oliver always love to be a bold, classy gentleman; hence, like one, he went to Connie’s hometown, in his junior year, for the weekend with the sole purpose of asking for Connie’s hand from her mother. What a daring mission he went off to!

When Oliver arrived, he stayed at Connie’s neighbors so he could only see Connie during day, and the days passed quickly. It was the last day and Oliver had to leave at 2 ‘o’ clock.  1 ‘o’ clock had already kicked but Oliver was still gathering the audacity to ask the most important question of his life.  Frustrated by waiting, Connie also began kicking Oliver, and eventually the following words came out of his mouth in front of Connie’s mother: I have nothing to offer. I am in a school, a normal graduate. All I have to offer your daughter is my love, and I would appreciate it if you would let me marry her. Notice that Oliver did not speak any romantic words; he remained realistic and direct, and that surely earned him a yes from his mother-in-law.

After graduating on 7th June’65 from Fisk University, Oliver and Connie married joyously a month later on 17th July, remaining happily married ever after. Even upon asking who he misses most every day, Oliver replied I miss my wife more than I can describe. Then he told us (and also showed some) about the numerous collages he has made and the relishing memories he has in his head, which he look at and recall when he misses his wife. Truly, Oliver is man of character, man of faith, man of heart.

In these 43 years of wonderful marriage, Oliver and Connie adopted a four week old, beautiful baby girl, Ramona Oliver. Moreover, when he mentioned about adopting his angelic daughter, Oliver said it was “the best decision we ever made.” Once again, it has been proved that when it comes to spreading and sharing love, Oliver’s generosity is unparalleled.

Ramona is now 45, works in Washington, and lives with her three and a half year old son (yes, Oliver is also a grandfather), both of whom Oliver occasionally skypes with and meets twice a year during spring and summer break. On asking why he doesn’t Skype more often, Oliver said that he doesn’t like Skype since it’s not like a phone call where he can walk and talk concurrently.

Professor Oliver with his beautiful wife, Mrs. Connie Oliver, and daughter Ramona Oliver [Credits: Syed Abbas Mehdi]

Professor Oliver with his beautiful wife, Mrs. Connie Oliver, and daughter Ramona Oliver [Credits: Syed Abbas Mehdi]

In 2010, Oliver married again to a woman referred by his classmate but, unfortunately, it’s not working out, so they are going to proceed with divorce. On asking why the marriage failed to work, Oliver said that his second wife feels that he did not let go of his former wife, which he admits, claiming that how do you not love a person you lived with for 47 years.

 “If I had been running, it would have scared him away.” 

Let’s clear out the myth that Oliver runs around the campus at 4 in the morning. True that he comes very early and he’s an exercise lover, it doesn’t mean that he loves to run. Moreover, the claims he made in the favor of walking actually make me reconsider my decision to run too.

Oliver believes that when you run, you fail to observe and appreciate the beauty of nature around you. Back in United States, he used to observe greenery, trees, plants, deer, alligators in ponds (yes, he used to walk by wild ponds), and other animals on his every morning walk, and this is what he misses a lot in Qatar.

Oliver’s most excitingly thoughtful, morning-walk observance, which I believe is most worthy of sharing, is that of an owl feeding on its prey. Once walking in the morning, Oliver observed an owl beside a tree which was feeding on its prey. Oliver stopped and looked at it him; the owl glanced back, and then continued eating its breakfast. At that time, Oliver realized that had he been running, he would have scared away the owl, making himself responsible for        its unsatisfied hunger. Inarguably, Oliver’s love and appreciation extends not to just his family or students, but towards animals and plants too. In fact, Oliver is a huge gardening fan. His garden is one of the top things he misses most about US. If you ever get chance, must stop by his office to witness the lush, green, and strikingly natural décor of his office.

Yes, that’s one of Professor Oliver’s beautiful houses in United States [Credits: Syed Abbas Mehdi]

Yes, that’s one of Professor Oliver’s beautiful houses in United States [Credits: Syed Abbas Mehdi]

 “If I could go back and undo it, I definitely would.” 

Let’s accept the fact: we are never perfect. All of us make mistakes no matter how pure our soul is. You made mistake, I make mistakes, and so did Professor Oliver. Yes, he has made a mistake which he regrets even to this day. I know you must be thinking of all sorts of crimes and brutal mastermind stuff which Oliver might have executed and now regrets, but I ask you to hold on to your imagination because you are never going to guess what is it that Oliver could have possibly  done to be haunted by it until this day.

On your mark… get set… go! Oliver accused someone wrongly of stealing a teacher’s purse in elementary school. Yes, you’re thinking right; it’s the elementary school, which means Oliver regrets something he did when he was just a child, in 3rd grade, about more than sixty years ago (that’s even before your parents were born).

So what really happened? That’s something you would have to go and ask him in office…. I am just kidding. He boldly shared the whole story with us.

There was a guy in Oliver’s school who stole the teacher’s purse and Oliver saw him with it in the washroom. When he returned to the class, the teachers asked if anyone had seen the purse. Since Oliver had already seen the guy who stole it in the washroom, he stepped out and told the teachers what he saw. The teachers then took him to every classroom, asking him to point out that boy who stole the purse. Upon entering the classroom, where that boy was, Oliver became reluctant to identify him since that boy passed him a threatening look. Afraid that the boy would seek his vengeance by “beating a pulp out of him,” Oliver pointed at another innocent student, and the teachers punished him instead of the real stealer.

While sharing this incident, Oliver also said that even though blaming the wrong person did not affect that person’s career, he would still do anything to make amends or undo it if he will ever be given a chance. It’s amazing that how some deeds, which are done even at such young age, continue to haunt us for the rest of our life. So, the moral we should all be learning here is never to be unfair to anyone. It can haunt us forever no matter how trivial it is.

“I am here by choice.” 

Walking through the thrillingly insightful journey of Oliver from an adventuring baby to a brilliant Ph.D. scholar is an outstanding and preciously meaningful guidance for all those who want to understand life.

Many of us guess that why Oliver has chosen to live in Qatar when he can live in US instead with his family. Some of us may think that Oliver is alone in Qatar, but allow me to warn those who think that’s the case.

Upon asking Oliver what message he would want to be conveyed, he said “I am here by choice,” meaning that Oliver has chosen Qatar because he likes it, not because he likes to be alone. Prior to joining the faculty of CMU-Q in 2004, Oliver had been working with Mobil Oil Corporation for 10 years. Part of his job description included the position of Manager of Training in Middle East, meaning that he has been working and living in Middle East long before he joined CMU-Q. When Carnegie opened its campus in Qatar in 2004, Oliver gladly offered to provide any assistance required from him; hence, he was offered the position of teaching professor. However, don’t let his preference of Qatar make you assume that Oliver has separated himself from his family. Every year, twice, during spring and summer vacations, Oliver flies back to his family in US and spends one fourth of a year there. Surely, Oliver’s living a gifted life, masterfully balanced between work and family. He is a man who knows how to spread love, education, guidance; he knows how to live life. Not only we are gifted to have him, this is what that separates Carnegie from any other college, making it unique. It is doubtlessly inarguable that people like him are hard to come by and this is what that makes us fortunate.

Once again, I would like to thanks Dr. Oliver for affording me the courtesy of spending 60 minutes with him to get to know more about the value of life from his precious stories. Surely, he has countless more and if you want to know them, just stop by at his office and have a memorable chat!

P.S. Special thanks to Syed Abbas Mehdi for taking out his time and offering his brilliant photography skills for this interview.