Jorge Díaz-Herrera’s mother knew her son could handle first grade, and she wasn’t going to let an age requirement or piece of furniture prevent him from attending.
“I could read and write, but there wasn’t any room at the school and you had to be 7 to enter first grade; I was 6 1/2,” recalls Díaz-Herrera, who grew up in the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. “My mother talked to the teacher, who was a friend of the family, and she said that if I brought my own chair, they would take me as an auditing student.”
So, little Jorge Luis trudged off to school, chair in tow.
“It was only three blocks but it looked like 30,” he recalled.
But he made it and did so well that “before the year was over, they admitted me and I sailed through sixth grade passing ‘eximido’—exempted from taking finals every year.”Years later, Díaz-Herrera faced a more formidable obstacle in his pursuit of an advanced degree.
“I had taken a tour of Europe with two friends and when we visited England, I fell in love with the place,” he recalled.
So, after finishing his undergraduate education at Universidad Centro Occidental in Venezuela, he began a master’s degree program in computing studies at Lancaster University in England.
However, the money he saved to study in England “ran out quickly,” putting his plans at risk. In stepped his father, who ran a bakery in Barquisimeto.
“He kept sending me money every month for about five months,” explained Díaz-Herrera. “I thought it came from the scholarship I applied for but, as I found out later, it came from his bakery. By the time the scholarship came in, I was almost done with my master’s, so I was able to use those funds for my Ph.D. [in computing studies at Lancaster University].”
Díaz-Herrera’s parents had a “basic education”—neither earned a high school diploma—but they envisioned more for their children.
“College was always a given,” said Díaz-Herrera, who has seven siblings, including four from his father’s first marriage. “My father always told us, ‘The only inheritance I am going to give you is education, not money or anything like that, because who knows?’ And he was absolutely right. He worked all his life and a couple of years before he died, he went bankrupt. My brother and I had to bail him out. We had education. Our father helped us a lot.”
Is there such a thing as a natural born teacher?
Keuka College’s 19th president believes there is.
“Teaching is innate with me,” he said. “In high school, I was part of a study group and I always taught the others when we studied math.”
Despite working during the day at Empresa Regional de Computación (ERCO) and taking night classes at Universidad Centro Occidental, he still found time to serve as a teaching assistant. And teaching has been a constant throughout his career.
“I’ve done it all my life,” he said, “and I feel very comfortable in front of the classroom.”
He came to Keuka from RIT, where he served as professor and dean of the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences. Formerly, he was professor and department head of computer science and Yamacraw project director at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga., and member of the executive committee in the Georgia Tech-led Yamacraw project. He was a senior member of the technical staff at Carnegie Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute, taught in the Master of Software Engineering program, and conducted research in product line engineering.
In addition, Díaz-Herrera served as chair of the first-in-the-U.S. software engineering department at Monmouth (N.J.) University and on the computer science faculties at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and SUNY Binghamton—his first job in the U.S. And, he serves as an unpaid research professor at RIT, where he still guides a Ph.D. student.
“I have done a couple of lectures in the President’s Leadership Circle program, and in a year or two, after we have a positive learning curve, I want to do some more formal teaching here,” said Díaz-Herrera. “It is critical that we (faculty) never give up scholarly activities; we need to remain involved with our field in some form of scholarship. I have never stopped reading profusely, and of course, writing. I am currently editing a large volume, part of the forthcoming Handbook of Computing and Information Sciences.”
Perhaps the president’s passion for teaching can best be explained in this story from early in his career:
“I can’t remember if it was at SUNY Binghamton or George Mason, but three students were having a hard time grasping concepts related to computer language theory. I asked them to come to my office for a few minutes to explain it in a different way. It wasn’t long before I saw a sparkle in their eyes, which told me they ‘got it.’ I’ll always remember that sparkle. It’s why we’re here.”
And now you know why his name on his business card starts with “Prof.”
Music has always been a big part of Díaz-Herrera’s life.
“I grew up in a city that is known as the musical capital of Venezuela,” he said. “There is a lot of high-quality music in Barquisimeto and some famous guitarists come from the region.”
One of those—Alirio Díaz, who studied under Andres Ségovia—befriended Díaz-Herrera.
“He calls me cousin,” said the president, whose hometown also produced the musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Gustavo Dudamel is an international product of the youth orchestra system—now known around the world—that José Antonio Abreu, whose brother was my co-worker at ERCO, started in Barquisimeto in the early ’70s.”
Díaz-Herrera calls himself a frustrated musician.
“I picked up the harp, Venezuelan cuatro, and guitar when I was 12 or 13,” he said. “However, I don’t have time to practice as much as I’d like, so it’s frustrating. On second thought, I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I’m an aficionado.”
Still, there’s no denying the president has talent. You don’t get invited to perform at Kilbourn Hall at Eastman School of Music in Rochester without it.
“There was a harp conference and harps from around the world were being featured,” he explained. “I can play the Venezuelan harp pretty well, so I was asked to give a recital by Dr. Nan Gallo-Richmond, my pedal harp teacher.”
Díaz-Herrera also likes to paint.
“I find it therapeutic and relaxing,” said the president, who attended artes plasticas (art school) for a few years during elementary school.
The president comes from a country that is crazy about baseball. Among Díaz-Herrera’s most prized possessions: a baseball signed by fellow countryman and Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio. However, Díaz-Herrera admitted that the term “aficionado” falls woefully short when it comes to describing his baseball skills.
“After I was hit in the face with a baseball when I was a kid, I said, ‘Forget it,’” recalled the president, who put away the bat in favor of a foil. “I really like fencing. It was one of the most popular sports when I went to high school and Barquisimeto is well known for producing fencers. I fenced in England and the States; maybe we can start a fencing club at Keuka.”
He also likes to cook, something he learned to do during his days as a single parent.
“I cook for myself every night in the Lucina,” said the president, whose wife, Dr. Özlem Albayrak, teaches software engineering at Bilkent University in Turkey. She plans to join her husband in Keuka Park at the conclusion of the academic year in Turkey.
“Thank God for Skype,” said the president.
Díaz-Herrera has six children, ranging in age from 42 to 18. The oldest runs a graphic design company in Washington, D.C., while the youngest is a freshman at Auburn University. In between are a junior at Bennington College, lawyer, physician’s assistant, and anthropologist.
Although the president is a man of many talents, swimming is not one of them.
“I can float, but I can’t swim,” he admitted. “I almost drowned in a pool when I was 14 and I’ve stayed away from the water ever since. That’s another reason why I enjoyed my time in England.”
“They don’t swim much in England,” he quipped.
However, that doesn’t mean he won’t take advantage of the gorgeous Finger Lake that lies just a hop, skip, and jump from the Lucina. He’s taken up sailing.
Should we call him Captain D-H?
“Not yet,” he replies with a large grin. “I’ve only had one lesson and it was great.”