Dr. Eduard Tsekanovskii is a world-renowned mathematician. He has presented at conferences and workshops around the world and published nearly 150 articles, research abstracts, manuscripts, and preprints in operator theory, functional analysis and applications, and system theory. One hundred articles were published in refereed international journals. He's been a visiting professor and guest speaker at a variety of universities both here and abroad, and his research has earned him international recognition. But perhaps equally impressive about him is his journey from his homeland in Ukraine to his new life on Monteagle Ridge.
Tsekanovskii was born in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea. It's home to numerous writers, poets, scientists, and comedians, and its people are known for being sharp-witted, streetwise and optimistic.
"It's a beautiful place, an international city with a hugely international set of people," Tsekanovskii says, adding, "If there are people in the former USSR who can laugh, they're from Odessa."
It doesn't take long before one realizes that Tsekanovskii possesses these Odessan qualities himself. His vivid descriptions of his life in the former Soviet Union are punctuated with laughter and, although he endured hardships, he bears no grudge. "I was born there. You cannot change your biography," he says simply, adding that he misses many of his friends and colleagues.
As a child after the second world war, Tsekanovskii's early years were difficult ones -- his father, an engineer, had a heart condition and could not work. His mother, a piano teacher, was the family's main source of income. Food was scarce, and Tsekanovskii's memory of that time was of "a huge hunger." He notes that each month, his father would receive one box that the United States sent out to the USSR to support people after the war. The box contained bacon, rice, dried egg yolks, and other staples. "Even up to this moment I remember the taste of the bacon," Tsekanovskii says, demonstrating how he would open the tin with its key. "Without this, life would have been much more difficult."
After completing high school, Tsekanovskii applied to Odessa Pedagogical University's College of Mathematics to study with the outstanding mathematicians who taught at this institution. The application process was a laborious one -- he had to pass entrance exams in the Ukrainian and Russian languages, math, physics and chemistry -- and admission was extremely competitive, with only one out of every four applicants being selected. And although there was no cost to attend, students had to agree to work for three years at a government-assigned job. "If you did not go you could be in big trouble. This was the life," Tsekanovskii notes.
Tsekanovskii was accepted, and, upon graduating with his master's degree, was assigned to work at a high school in a rural area about 90 miles from Odessa, where electricity was available for only a few hours each night. At the encouragement of his colleagues, he applied to the Ph.D. program at the Kharkov Institute of Radio Electronics, formerly the Mining Institute. As before, the application process required passing several entrance exams, including one on the history of the Communist Party. He notes that his adviser and teacher, who was a great mathematician, was integral in securing his acceptance into the program.
Earning a Ph.D. required the publication of at least two papers and a dissertation with a public defense that was advertised in the newspaper. A government-appointed committee determined, by two-thirds vote, whether or not your candidacy would be forwarded to the Supreme Certification Committee for final review and acceptance. Tsekanovskii successfully defended his dissertation and received his Ph.D. in mathematics.
As a young Ph.D., Tsekanovskii was invited to teach at the newly established Donetsk State University in Ukraine, working with Ph.D. students who would eventually become experts in the field. "I was lucky to have good students," he says, noting that one is currently teaching at a university in Alabama. "That is my contribution to the United States," he laughs. Other students are internationally recognized mathematicians working at universities and academic research institutions in Ukraine.
Tsekanovskii decided to pursue another advanced degree because "if you have a second Russian degree you are like a ‘king,'" he says, and are almost assured a job. The application process for a Doctor of Science degree was similar to that for the Ph.D., except that you had to have published 10 to 15 papers in refereed journals. Tsekanovskii earned his degree in 1970.
While most university professors are encouraged to attend conferences in their field, in the USSR, the opportunity to do so was reserved for a privileged few. And Tsekanovskii was not one of them. He turned down invitations from a number of organizations until 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev's political and economic reform relaxed the control of the Communist Party. Tsekanovskii's first conference was in Romania and it cost him two months' salary to attend. He gave his first presentation, met many American mathematicians, and established connections that led to additional conference invitations. He recalls two that were held in Japan in 1991. He traveled with three colleagues first to Sapporo, then to Kobe. To save money, the four brought sausages and biscuits to eat on their journey and found a cargo ship that could take them "almost for free" from one city to the other. He remembers how the crew laughed when they saw the men take out their food at mealtimes during the 36-hour trip.
In 1992, Tsekanovskii made a life-altering decision to join his son, a graduate student at the University at Buffalo, in the United States.
Tsekanovskii faced considerable obstacles in coming to America. There were cultural differences -- he remembers his first trip to a grocery store, when he saw the beer aisle for the first time. "You stand on line almost one hour to get one bottle of beer and food when the system in the former USSR was about to collapse," he says. "I considered this Tops supermarket as a museum of food."
In addition, Tsekanovskii's English skills were limited. He notes that he could not understand television at all. He had no money, no job. He didn't know how to drive. But, he explains, "I am a mathematician. I started solving problem by problem." He attended the International Institute in Buffalo to learn English, walking an hour each way to get to class. He received government assistance to rent an apartment and pay for food. He called on American colleagues, who would invite him to give talks at conferences, and he spoke at seminars at the University at Buffalo. "The mathematics department at the university, as well as other mathematicians from other universities, supported me very much in my new life," he says.
In June of 1993, Tsekanovskii walked to Erie County Community College's city campus to apply for a job. There were no vacancies at the time, but he was called for an interview the next year and offered a part-time teaching position. He was also offered a part-time position at the University at Buffalo. These two jobs enabled him to earn enough money to purchase a car.
While these jobs helped pay his bills, Tsekanovskii wanted full-time employment. He began applying to universities, including Niagara, looking for work. In 1996, he accepted a position as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where his colleagues in the mathematics department strongly supported both his application and his work. Two years later, he was offered a research position at the Institute for Financial Mathematics in North Carolina, a new school that closed a month after he arrived because of financial difficulties.
With no job and no home, Tsekanovskii "put all (his) belongings in a car and went to Brooklyn" where his sister, a piano teacher, lived, and began looking for work again. In July 1998, he received an e-mail from Niagara inquiring if he was still interested in a position in the math department. He was.
Tsekanovskii taught his first semester at Niagara in the fall of 1998 as an assistant professor and has worked his way to a full, tenured professorship. "It's a completely different life for me at Niagara," he says. From having his own office (before he came to the United Sates, he was allotted one drawer in a departmental desk), to having access to publications ("You can order anything from the libraries here," he says in amazement. "Any book I want they find or buy specifically for me."), the disparities between his life in the former Soviet Union and his new life as an American citizen still astonish Tsekanovskii, who says, "Now I understand what it means to enjoy life like many Americans do. I am very grateful to Niagara for giving me a chance to do the same."