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Case campus remembers "Doc Oc" for his remarkable teaching

Ignacio J. Ocasio
"Doc Oc"—Ignacio J. Ocasio

Within the first two weeks of class, Ignacio J. Ocasio, the Teagle Professor of Chemistry—more fondly known by students and faculty as "Doc Oc"—had the remarkable ability to learn the names of each student. This was no easy feat when his students in introductory chemistry classes numbered more than 500.

The Case Western Reserve University campus mourns the passing of Doc Oc, who died suddenly Saturday, May 14, from a heart attack. He was 53 years old.

"Doc Oc, a classically trained pianist and prodigiously talented chemistry professor, came to Case in 1980. Since that time, thousands of students have passed through his chemistry courses and have been infected by his energy, enthusiasm and dedication," said Case President Edward M. Hundert, M.D.

President Hundert's email box filled with messages from students who were mourning the loss of Doc Oc.

"Doc and I were family. Blood tests are no match for the closeness we shared; he was my father away from home," said Joshua Zarowitz, who had Doc Oc for an advisor. "He was my best friend, mentor and advisor."

Student Memories
Final wishes left in chalk on the Case Quad.

Throughout campus, words about Doc Oc circulated and reflected the ones of Jeff Goshe, a third-year medical student. "He was one of the finest teachers I ever had as well as a great human being," said Goshe, who had Doc Oc as a teacher during his undergraduate years at Case.

"This campus will not be the same without him," said Margaret Wuerdeman, who graduated on Sunday. Wuerdeman, who came to Case from Venezuela, spent nearly every afternoon of her first year in Doc Oc's office where the two conversed about Latin America, the Caribbean and chemistry. "Those who did not have the privilege of knowing him have surely missed out. (He was) an inspiration and one of the best teachers I have ever had. This is a tragedy that touches us all."

While Doc Oc was friendly, he also had strict rules about his class policy, as Wuerderman found out. Doc Oc would not budge from his policy that those with an average of 95% would be excused from the final. For two semesters, Wuerdeman's average was 94.4 and all the pleading would not get Doc Oc to change. Denied the easy way out, Wuerdeman said it made her work harder.

Born February 5, 1952, Prof. Ocasio grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His maternal grandmother taught him how to play the piano when he was a young boy. His love of music was nurtured and mentored by the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who was a neighbor and befriended the young Ignacio.

Once Prof. Ocasio entered the University of Puerto Rico, he found a new passion in his life—chemistry. His passion for music and chemistry continued. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1970 and a Master of Arts degree in 1972 in music from the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico. He also obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1972 and his doctorate in chemistry in 1975 from the University of Puerto Rico.

Music and chemistry continued to vie for his attention as he became an assistant professor of piano from 1972-1976 at the Conservatory of Music, and then taught chemistry from 1976-1977 at the University of Puerto Rico.

He came to the U. S. mainland in 1977 as a postdoctoral research associate for Paul D. Sullivan in the chemistry department at Ohio University. He was an assistant professor at OU until 1980, when he joined the Case faculty as an assistant professor and dedicated his career primarily to teaching. He was also one of the authors of more than 10 research papers.

In a CWRU Magazine article, Prof. Ocasio remembers thinking on his second day of teaching in Puerto Rico, "What am I doing? This is exactly what I like. I never would have imagined." Since that exclamation, Prof. Ocasio touched the lives of thousands of students and called upon his stage presence to keep his chemistry students alert and attentive. "He made chemistry fun, plain and simple," said James Chang in a message on a special website for students and colleagues to recall their memories associated with Doc Oc.

For Christopher Butler, a faculty member from the Case department of mathematics, Doc Oc was not just a fellow teacher, but the godfather of his son, Michael, and a family member. He remembers Doc Oc for his engaging, entertaining and personal style of teaching and his ability to connect with his students. "Doc Oc was one-of-a-kind and a wonderful man."

Doc Oc once reported in a Case publication, "At the beginning of every year, I visit all of the residence halls one by one, and I schedule a day and time to meet with commuters in my classes." He went on to say, "It's important to me to meet all of my students individually. After my initial round of visits to the dorms, I keep going back throughout the year, especially around the time of exams." He was known to stay for several hours in the main lobby to help students with any chemistry problem and other difficulties students might have in adjusting to college life. "Getting to know the students is one of the best things about teaching here," said Prof. Ocasio.

Doc Oc at his desk

His teaching was recognized with a number of awards: the Undergraduate Student Government Teaching Award in 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 2000 and the Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1993.

Outside of class, he served as an advisor to the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, to the first-year class team for the Hudson Relay (an annual tradition), an organizer for the Northeast Ohio Regional Science Olympiad (an event for high school students interested in science) and a judge for the annual Mr. CWRU Contest. For a number of years, he was a featured performer on the piano when Case's annual Faculty and Staff Revue was held to raise money for the student emergency loan fund.

Prof. Ocasio is survived by his mother, Carmiņa Lomba de Ocasio of Isla Verde Carolina, Puerto Rico, and his sister, Maria Emilia Ocasio de Martin and, her son and two daughters, of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.

Funeral services are being arranged by Puerto Rico Memorial, Avenue Ponce de Leon # 1712, Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico. The service will take place on Wednesday, May 18, in Puerto Rico. The Case community will remember Prof. Ocasio during a memorial service (date TBA) after students return to campus in the fall.

 

About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work. http://www.case.edu.