78-year-old earns PhD
By Eric Coker, Inside BU
Kishen Kapur has some simple but solid advice for his fellow students.
“Become addicted to learning,” the 78-year-old Vestal resident said. “Learning is what makes the difference in life.”
More than a half-century after earning his master’s degrees, Kapur received a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University in May.
“The closer [Commencement got], the more excited we [were],” said daughter Rani Kapur '84, MA '88, a cardiologist in Sidney. “I don’t know where he got the gumption to do this at his age.”
Kapur, born Aug. 16, 1930, received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Bombay University in India in 1952 and 1954. He came to the United States in 1956 and attended Kent State University in Ohio, receiving a master’s degree in mathematics. In July 1958, Kapur got a job with IBM, where he worked as a physicist and senior engineer for more than 30 years.
“It was the key thing in the area,” he said of IBM. “It was the industry.”
Kapur, who married wife Marie on May 5, 1961, has four children: Rani, Kristna '88 (a dentist in Ithaca), David (an attorney in Endicott) and Karin Walsh (a retired educator).
In the 1990s, the self-described “addict for electronics” decided to explore the field at Binghamton University. Getting a PhD was not the motivation to take classes, Kapur said.
“I wanted access to the library and to play with electronics,” he said. “Those were my two desires. So I thought, ‘They won’t let me just go and play, so I’d better sign up for something.’ … I liked the privilege of getting any number of books from the library. That was nice. And working in the lab, I had full freedom to work on projects.”
And what was the family’s reaction when Kapur announced he was going back to school?
“They told me, ‘You’re nuts,'" Kapur said with a laugh. “‘You’re in retirement. Why do you need this?’ I didn’t have an answer, other than that I am addicted to this.”
The family, though, is indeed elated for him.
“It’s incredible that at his age he wants to continue to learn,” Kristna Kapur said. “It is a really big deal. He didn’t do it for the graduation or the hype. He did it for personal goals. I don’t think I could go back to school now. He’s an inspiration for doing this.”
Kristna Kapur said her father was always helpful in math and physics and remains someone who “can fix anything” from simple toys to her advanced dental equipment.
“Growing up it was always ‘Dad knows how to fix it,’” she said. “For the second generation, it’s ‘Grandpa knows how to fix it.’”
The “addiction” of electronic assembly and repair goes back to India, Kapur said.
“One of my professors went to MIT and came back with instruments for doing experiments in nuclear physics,” Kapur said. “I told him that I could make (the instruments) for him. He didn’t believe me! I gave him an offer: If it works, you keep it, you pay me. If it doesn’t work, you throw it away and we’re done.
“He placed an order; I delivered it. Since then, I’ve been making electronic equipment on the side — instrumentation for all kinds of custom electronic equipment.”
At Binghamton, Kapur worked with his adviser, electrical and computer engineering Prof. James Constable. The two even published a paper together after Kapur became a student. Kapur said sometimes he took up to three classes a semester, other times he spent the semester doing research while on “Grandpa duty.”
Kapur credits Constable with allowing him to work at his own pace.
“Dr. Constable is the one who kept me on track,” he said. “He guided me: let’s do this, let’s do that. … He took me on a tour of campus to get me started and now he’ll be putting the hood on me at Commencement.”
Constable is pleased that he will see Kapur receive his doctorate.
“It’s nice that he hung in there and he’s finishing,” Constable said. “It’s the kind of thing you like to see as a faculty member.”
Kapur never attended any of his three prior Commencement ceremonies and was not going to attend this weekend’s ceremony until his family intervened.
“We said, ‘Dad, this is a big deal,’” Kristna Kapur said. “Not many people do this at his age. And this isn’t basket weaving. It’s electrical engineering.”
“I said, ‘OK, but this is the last one,’” Kishen Kapur said. “There’s three doctors in the family. We had to have another one. Three is an odd number.”
The family is expecting 16 people to cheer for Kapur, including Marie, the four children and six grandchildren ranging in age from 3 to 30.
Despite modesty and a terrific sense of humor (“I just want it to be over with,” he said with a laugh about the ceremony.), Kapur admitted it will be nice to be honored this weekend. But he reiterated that it was his love of learning and electronics that brought him to this point.
“I’m not going to go and get a job,” he said. “If there’s an electronics job I like, I’ll do it for nothing!”