In memory of SYDE Professor Kish Hahn

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Department of Systems Design Engineering is saddened to announce the passing of Professor Kish Hahn on April 30, 2022, at the age of 90.

Kish HahnProfessor Hahn lived a full life, with 38 years spent at the University of Waterloo. He arrived at the university in 1962 with his wife, Helena, for a role in the Department of Design, a precursor to the Department of Systems Design Engineering (SYDE). His perspective on design education was honed through expertise in human factors engineering and training as a professional photographer. Many of his photos from the 1960s are archived by the University of Waterloo.

Professor Hahn’s impact on the SYDE department cannot be overstated. During his tenure, the SYDE program directed its own admissions process. He saw talent and potential in students that demonstrated their abilities through accomplishments other than required high school grades. He advocated for their admission and enjoyed mentoring them to success. Students appreciated his dynamic teaching methods, noting “he could motivate a rock”. His enthusiasm changed the career trajectory of countless SYDE alumni and inspired many current faculty to pursue the fields of human factors and ergonomics. In recognition of his dedication to teaching and learning, Professor Hahn received the Centre for Teaching Excellence’s Distinguished Teacher Award in 1992. 

We extend our deepest sympathies to Professor Hahn’s family, especially his daughters Michele and Francoise. Share online condolences and memories of Professor Hahn on the memorial website.


Recollections from colleagues and alumni  

Glen Bandiera (BASc '90) 
Professor of Medicine, Temerty Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
Executive Director, Specialty Education, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

I have such fond memories of Professor Hahn, his energy fuels me today.

John Cheuck (BASc '90) 
Managing Director, General Partner, Ant Global Partners (HK) Limited

In late March 1985, I got a surprise phone call from Kish Hahn to discuss my application to Systems Design Engineering. 

He told me that Waterloo did not know anything about my Vancouver high school, only ever considered 2-3 Grade 12 students from British Columbia (never accepted any) and that compared to Ontario applicants I was lacking a Grade 13 year and missing Calculus completely.

Despite the slightly harsh startup, he seemed to be sincerely interested in me, and we talked about my interests, future plans and extracurriculars. I told him that I had just been accepted to the Shad Valley program for my Grade 12 summer and was looking forward to attending on Waterloo campus that coming July.

I thought this was the nicest rejection call I had ever received but then Kish asked if he could call on some of my teachers as references. Later I learned that he personally called my Math, Physics, Chem teachers and even my Grade 12 counsellor.

After being on pins and needles for like 3+ months, I get another call from Kish in June.

The conversation went like this:

Hi John, this is Kish Hahn. I am here with a good friend of mine, Derek Lane Smith, he is the founder of Shad Valley. We have been talking about you and don't think you should be attending Shad Valley this summer .....

(What?? My heart skips a few beats as I stop breathing ... and then I hear...)

I would like to make you a conditional offer to study Systems Design Engineering with us in the fall but you would have to take and finish a course in introductory Calculus this summer. You will probably not be able to attend Shad Valley if you accept this offer. Derek comes on the line to endorse the SYDE program and that spending 3 months to complete a whole Calculus 1 course would be the best thing to do.

Kish: So John, what do you say?

I say "yes", signed up for correspondence Calculus,  and have always remembered that great chance that Kish gave me.

Kish Hahn's endless positivity, goodwill, and ability to see and believe in the best in people has definitely been a guiding force in my life and career.

On behalf of all the high school and SYDE students that Kish believed in and championed, thank you!

May you rest in peace knowing that we are all making a difference, thanks to you!

Peter Kuttenkeuler (BASc '90) 
Owner/Principal, Gemba Associates, Inc. 

After Grade 13, I enrolled at Brock University for computer science because I barely knew how to turn a computer on. After two unhappy years there, I applied to transfer to the University of Waterloo. Any kind of advance standing was quickly denied. I formally applied to Waterloo's Systems Design Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Physics, prepared to start over. After I received my “we sincerely regret” letter from SYDE, I made an appointment to see the Admission Officer: Kish Hahn, of course. He initially defended the decision to deny me admission but I wore him down. He granted me conditional acceptance if I took a Waterloo Correspondence Course in algebra and earn a final mark of 85%. I received a package of cassette tapes and a workbook and sweated out the recorded lectures over the summer of ‘85, mailing in assignments every 2 weeks. In late August I nervously wrote the final exam, got 95% and crossed the threshold into the SYDE class of 1990. I was over the moon.
 
Everyone will likely remember Kish as an overly exuberant proponent for Systems Design Engineering, bounding into our classroom like Tigger. For me, Kish Hahn was a passionate gatekeeper for Systems Design Engineering. In my life’s journey, he represents a key fork in the road. He gave me a chance. I’ll never forget him.

Tom Lee (BASc '88, MASc '90)
Walter G. Booth Chair for Engineering Entrepreneurship and Innovation, McMaster University

I am profoundly grateful for Professor Hahn's pioneering work in helping to build the Systems Design Engineering program. At a time when engineering was speeding towards an age of hyperspecialization, he and a handful of visionaries dared to teach us the values, merits, and necessity of interdisciplinary systems thinking and placing the needs of people directly into the design loop. As my career developed through the decades, I was oblivious to the lasting impact that Prof. Hahn, his colleagues, and the department had had on the way I perceived the world. But today, I am a faculty member at a prominent university and I find strong echoes of his words in my dealings with students and colleagues and I am heartened by the warm responses that I have been getting. I find it ironic that these ideas are considered fresh and innovative but I know better. Thanks so much Kish.

Grant Parks
Managing Consultant, IBM

Professor Hahn proved to me that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. I was an out-of-province student and my high school average was definitely lower than the class average coming in. He admitted me and gave me a chance. I will never forget that. He enthusiastically supported a project I started with two classmates, picking up the phone to get us information and driving us to Barrie to meet with a company. Professor Hahn was always positive, even when we got a flat tire on the way home he declared, "What great fun!". Over the years we became friends and he spoke at my wedding. Goodbye Kish! 

Linda Traykovski (BASc '90)
Post-Doctoral Investigator, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

I am so sorry to hear that Kish Hahn is gone - he was formidable, truly a paragon that we all strove to emulate. His boundless enthusiasm was infectious, and his unrelentingly positive outlook could move mountains! To me, he represented the heart and soul of Systems Design Engineering, and I am deeply grateful for the chance I had to learn from him in the company of this amazing class that, thanks to him, I was lucky enough to be a part of!

James Wei 
Founder and CEO, Worldview Technology Partners 

I am forever indebted to Professor Hahn. I didn’t get into Systems Design Engineering on the first try as my high school grades weren’t good enough. I had spent all of my efforts in high school building a solar cell from scratch and ended up with below-average grades for the typical SYDE applicant. Professor Hahn took a second look, and let me in. That changed the course of my career, and my life.  

Recollections have been edited for clarity. 

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