Sixty Minutes with Osaama Shehzad: Professor Mark Stehlik

by All Around CMU-Q

1All photo credit in this story goes to Syed Abbas Mehdi.

Mark Stehlik is a man of many words. From the journey of an attempted-killer to an attempted Ph.D. scholar, he battled against poverty, was saved by a dog, won hearts, transformed lives, and reached top the ladder of success in a truly exemplary and inspirational way for folks like us — who are only driven by our dreams.

WHAT WAS THE MOST NAUGHTY THING YOU DID IN YOUR CHILDHOOD?
“I tried to kill my brother.”

Some of you might be wondering why I referred to Mark as an attempted-killer. The story that I’m telling here might sound humorous, but the facts are not. I asked Mark earlier during the interview if he had done anything mischievous or embarrassing in his childhood. He couldn’t recall any. His innocent response was: I did normal childhood things. But then are always more things to casual answers. After a round of other questions, I paraphrased the question, and I finally got an answer. I was surprised as he shared the most terrifyingly naughty incident that could have ever happened in anyone’s childhood.

Mark’s younger brother, Paul, was only two years old when he became the target of an unintentionally naughty yet dangerous temptation that kicked in Mark’s mind. Baby Paul’s carriage was resting atop the declining driveway. Mark was tempted to push it so it could run against the winds. Assured that Paul was inside the carriage, Mark released the carriage’s brake, allowing it to slide and crash into the garage’s door.Miraculously, for both of them, Paul wasn’t in the carriage. “I am sure I thought he was in there, and if my brother was in it, he would have been pretty seriously injured,” commented Mark.

The crime was punishable for Mark. After the incident, he received a heavy beating from his mother, which is something I could infer when he said, “and boy, didn’t I get beaten for that one!” Mark added, “I remember the beating. I do not remember what I was thinking when I released the carriage brake.”

“You were pretty murderous.”  “Only once.”

“You were pretty murderous.”
“Only once.”

YOU AND YOUR FATHER WERE PRETTY CLOSE, I GUESS?
“It’s never so much about how much you spend; it’s all about the caring.”

Luxury either comes as a blessing with birth or as a product of hard work. For Mark, it was the latter.

Mark comes from a lower class family, but to his parents, it never was an obstacle to their children’s educational and physical nourishment. Mark’s father, Ladislav Stehlik, used to work three jobs to afford housing, his children’s education, and other expenses. To Mark, it was one of the reasons why he described his relationship with his father in childhood as not so close while he was a young child. It was only later that he realized there were financial circumstances that did not allow his father to be more around him. Learning from his father, Mark considers work as his top priority. He said, “I might not be devoted to my job had I not seen his example of devotion to his job and his family.”

But Mr. Ladislav’s busy routine didn’t deprive Mark from his father’s love. Mr. Ladislav found ways that were “within his economic means” to take his family out for entertainment: to places like Central Park Zoo, subway rides to New York, thanksgiving parades, or to sidewalks, simply to “watch things go by.”

Mark was brought up in an environment where happiness was not measured by price, and I think that growing up in this kind of love and care is a blessing.

Toys are one of the most desired items in childhood. They contribute to the developments in child’s creativity and they are a tangible form of entertainment. But if you’re guessing computers were Mark’s favorite toy, you’re very wrong.

Mark is a huge fan of model trains and he always wanted to have one. Unfortunately, his dad couldn’t afford it so he would buy him “small things” occasionally, but realistic Mark never felt disheartened. He remained optimistic and when he transitioned into an earning adult, a model train was one of the first things he bought for himself. Surely, Mark believes in the saying “it’s never too late.”
When Mark described how he always wanted a model train, I immediately began to think how children are sometimes tempted to steal items if their parents do not buy them what they want. So, I asked him if such temptations ever crossed his mind. He responded, “Oh no… I mean we saved if we needed to save then we got over not having things at least in that moment.”

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“My brother and I were eating sort of something interesting for dinner and my parents were having kind of soup. That’s how close to the line we were economically.”

I AM HEARING A LOT ABOUT YOUR DAD. WHAT ABOUT YOUR MOM?

Mark’s mother, Miss Lillian Stehlik is a disciplinary lady who used to work as a secretary before she had children, and she returned to the job market only after Paul went to college. Surely, she sacrificed her job even in the restrictive financial conditions for the sake of her children’s emotional nourishment.

Back in Mark’s days, corporal punishment was a common parenting method intending to make children behave. Miss Lillian always kept a wooden stick hidden in her kitchen drawer but it had to be replaced often since it would be used on Mark or Paul. However, Mark had a guardian angel but not in the form of light as usually angels are. Mark’s family had a dog named “PS” whose ears were very sensitive to even most subdued of voices. Every time Miss Lillian would open the drawer to get the spoon out, PS (the dog) would hear it and run as fast as he could, jumping over the drawer to stop Miss Lillian from taking the spoon out. PS knew he wanted to save Mark or Paul, and Mark shared:
“If not for that dog, I don’t think I would have made it.”

Mark’s parents, Ladislav and Lillian Stehlik, on the day they were married (June 5, 1954) and on their 50th anniversary (June 5, 2004)

Mark’s parents, Ladislav and Lillian Stehlik, on the day they were married (June 5, 1954) and on their 50th anniversary (June 5, 2004)

HOW DID YOU MEET YOUR WIFE FOR THE FIRST TIME?
“I met my wife over a pair of size 8 bowling shoes.”

We all know Mark’s famous sense of humor, which is something that he’d won the hearts of the freshmen with during orientation season. However, I wondered whether this was the reason he might have come off as a person with a charming and attractive personality in his old days. I proposed my wonderment as a question, and found out that my assumption was only partly true. He said, “I suppose that’s why my wife… mainly one of the many reasons my wife married me. But I was definitely a total wallflower when I was in elementary school and high school.”

Mark met his wife in a bowling alley, where he was working part-time. Every week, Mrs. Sylvia Stehlik, would come and the two would chat over the exchange of bowling shoes. Soon Mark began to fall for her and after weeks, he finally decided to give in to his feelings and ask her out. Obviously, Sylvia said ‘yes.’ On their first date, Mark and Sylvia fell for each other, and this marked the commencement of their long-term relationship.

Professor Mark while recalling his dad's reaction when he shared his feelings concerning Mrs. Stehlik with his father.

Professor Mark while recalling his dad’s reaction when he shared his feelings concerning Mrs. Stehlik with his father.

They started dating in 1976 but after three years, Mark broke up with Sylvia because he had to go to graduate school. Mark felt he was not ready to be a husband, a father, and a grad student all at the same time since Sylvia had a 5 year old boy, Damian, from a previous marriage. “You’re only supposed to have one big life change at a time. This would have been three: fatherhood, marriage, and grad student, all into one.”

From 1979 to 1981, Mark pursued his graduate school journey, and realized that he had made a mistake by breaking up with Sylvia. He wasn’t dating anyone else and he missed his former partner, so he decided to call her. Although Mark and Sylvia were living in different states at the time, he was fortunate enough to know that she wasn’t dating anyone either. They began talking to each other over phone as just friends, but it didn’t take long for them to be bound by the tie of marriage on June 5, 1982 – the same date Mark’s parents married. However, Mark admits that even though Sylvia still loves him a lot, the way she loved him before breakup changed after they got together again. So word of advice: if you really love someone, don’t let them go.

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Mr. and Mrs. Stehlik in Iceland, 2014.

I asked Mark how he popped the question but, unfortunately, he couldn’t recall the exact words since it was a long time ago. I suggested he email his wife about it. He did, and got an instant response from her:

“You almost proposed to me on the phone but I stopped you. That was in August. I told you that I wanted a proposal in person and on one knee. When you visited in November, you did and your exact words were, “Will you spend the rest of your life with me?” I think I said yes. :-)”

DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE A CS GRADUATE?
“I always wanted to teach.”

Even though this article is not intended to reflect on Mark’s academic achievements, I believe that it’s essential to share his academic side since it completes his identity.

Since the very early age, Mark wanted to teach. It was his passion. All that was left was for him to decide which field he was going to teach in. Fortunately, fate sorted it all out when he won
a full scholarship from Pace University for his Bachelors degree. Although Mark enrolled in Math major, he discovered Computer Science to be more interesting, ending up as double majoring in Math and Computer Science.

To become a college teacher, Mark was told he had to have a Ph.D. , so he applied to Carnegie Mellon (along with three other schools). He was accepted to Carnegie Mellon, a decision that was met with utter surprise and happiness by Mark’s undergraduate advisor who said, “You got into Carnegie Mellon? You have to go there!”

So after completing his undergraduate degree at Pace, Mark enrolled in CMU’s Ph.D. Program, but after two years his heart wasn’t really into it. But fate did him a favor again by opening a vacant faculty position in the CS department. He seized the opportunity right on the spot by applying for it. In the beginning, he was offered a provisional faculty position, of which he taught a Programming class for the first time for non-CS majors. His performance made the department happy, as it was obvious for them that classrooms are where Mark’s heart belonged. Since then, Mark became a fulltime faculty member in 1981.

When the School of Computer Science at CMU opened in 1988, it needed someone to run it. Mark was interested in the role, and he was asked to take it. However, Mark confessed that he’d accept it if he would be still allowed to teach. He narrated the specific scenario to that moment:

DEAN OF CS DEPARTMENT: “So let me get this right. If we let you do more work, you will take this job?”
PROFESSOR MARK: “If you put it that way, yes. I just want to do what I like and I am good at.”

I asked Mark if teaching is his real passion, and why is he doing it a lot less now, he gave an interesting reply: “There are other teaching opportunities within this environment, in this office, outside this office… right… I think that is also present.”

During his 25 years of running the CS program at CMU, Mark discovered that teaching is not only limited to academics. It extends to advising, discussing and sharing all sorts of support to students, including emotional. This is one of the reasons why Mark describes he developed a very close relationship with many of his students during his career, and why he was actually asked by one of his students to be his best man on his wedding. It is 101% without doubt that Mark is not only very generous in spreading and receiving love, but he enjoys it. He explains how he sometimes feels jealous of Professor Oliver who gets to know the freshmen from teaching the calculus class. Mark says, “I actually feel a little jealous of Marion because he gets to see, virtually, every student coming through the door. I don’t anymore.”

Professor Mark as his student's best man at the wedding.

Professor Mark as his student’s best man at the wedding.

WHAT IS THE MOST TRAGIC OR SADDEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN YOUR LIFE?
“I cried an awful lot when my dad died… I will cry now if I am not careful.”

As mentioned earlier, Mark and his father did not have a very close relationship in childhood and early adolescence. Mr. Ladislav was occupied by multiple jobs to keep his family financially sound. However, the dark clouds drifted away as Mark and Paul grew up, and Mr. Ladislav began to come more around the family when Mark’s son, Matthew, was born. This was the beginning of a very close father-son relationship, which formed over the years until Mr. Ladislav passed away in last April due to complications that arose during a heart surgery.

Mr. Ladislav’s demise was the saddest moment in Mark’s life. He was torn apart between his dad and students — the people he loved most. CMUQ’s first CS graduation was coming up and Mark had formed a very close relationship with his students. While he wanted to be in his home in the US with his family, his students desired for him to be with them on their great day. It was a very hard decision for him to make, but he made the right choice when Dean Baybars put him on a flight to the US since family comes first. Even though Mark wasn’t there for his students at their graduation, he received loads of letters and condolences from Qatar, which helped him cope with the saddest tragedy he’s ever experienced.

"If anything, I would have loved to see him one last time... you don’t get to make that choice either... we managed to say ‘I love you’ and all those other things over the course of many conversations, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not... There wasn’t much left to say other than goodbye. So what I would wish for you and for anyone is that you have... you ultimately over the lifetime come to a place where you have said all the things needed to be said and you have had all the good experiences you needed to have and so you can separate your hurt, and not feel like I needed to do. What I would have liked to do is very different than I needed to do."

“If anything, I would have loved to see him one last time… you don’t get to make that choice either… we managed to say ‘I love you’ and all those other things over the course of many conversations, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not… There wasn’t much left to say other than goodbye. So what I would wish for you and for anyone is that you have… you ultimately over the lifetime come to a place where you have said all the things needed to be said and you have had all the good experiences you needed to have and so you can separate your hurt, and not feel like I needed to do. What I would have liked to do is very different than I needed to do.”

WHAT WAS THE HAPPIEST MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE?
“If I could relive those three weeks… we didn’t have to do anything… just three weeks.”
Life is full of mysteries, surprises, and tragedies. There are some things we hope we never came across, while other things are what we would want to relive again. But we are not the one to make this choice. When I asked Mark about his happiest moment in life, he couldn’t answer it. I rephrased the question as “any moment you would want to live again” and what followed next was a three-second silence —literally!
There’s no doubt that Mark has always been a busy man. But work never stopped him from making time for his kids. Mark has two sons (one is adopted) and a daughter: Damian (40), Matthew (30), and Kristin (26) who is also a mother. Mark is also a grandfather of a very cute baby, Gabriel, who was born about a year and a half ago. When I told him he’s lucky to have such a huge family, he said “it is I who am lucky to have them.”
The Stehlik Family.

The Stehlik Family.

So coming back to the happiest moment, when Matthew and Kristin were 16 and 14, Mark took them to a cross-country road trip for three weeks in summer. Mrs. Stehlik was also supposed to go with them but work called her back, which turned out pretty well for Mark because he got the whole three weeks with his kids to himself.

When Mark’s friends heard about the cross-country trip, they said, “you’re going to walk yourself into a car with two teens for three weeks? None of you are going to survive!” Fortunately, the trip didn’t turn out to be scary or worrisome, but a memorable experience for father and kids.

One of the incidents that Mark described from the trip was a sibling fight. Mark was driving the kids while constantly listening to Matthew and Kristin’s screaming and yelling at each other. Hoping that they might calm down, Mark kept controlling his temper but the wait seemed to be eternal. So he finally gave up, screaming at the top of his lungs: “Stop! Stop the stupid stuff!” Mark rarely used to yell at his kids. Unable to believe what happened, Matthew and Kristin suddenly became silent, trying their best to not let their laughter burst out. Pretty soon, they cracked up, laughing really hard after witnessing that funny Mark can actually yell.

Professor Mark with his son, daughter, and wife.

Professor Mark with his son, daughter, and wife.

FINAL WORDS
Through Professor Mark’s insightful stories, I hope we all can learn the values of family, relationships, and work from his life. At the end of the interview, I asked him to share any thoughts and messages he might have for the students. He said, “Caring about people is important. People are number one. Whether they’re family, or they’re the people you work with, or the people you teach, or your peers.”

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