I had a ball visiting my home country Turkey last month- mostly the schools where I had spent perhaps the happiest times of my life.  What prompted the trip was the end of the centennial and the beginning of the 101st birthday celebration of one of my favorite teachers at Tarsus American College (TAC), Haydar Göfer. I had missed the beginning of the 100th year in February of last year. 
by Sevgin OKTAY TAC’54

Watching YouTube of the celebration of last year, I was most impressed by the perfect rendition of a popular song “Haydar, Haydar” of his first name that I thought I could accompany him on my harmonica this year.  More on that later…

My wife Betty and I arrived in Tarsus on 9 February 2019, the day before the beginning of the centennial + 1 (101st) celebration to get ourselves acclimated to Tarsus- which I am glad we did because surroundings had changed so much with new buildings, roads, etc., that it was indeed very confusing – clearly an understatement.  Thanks to Erdoğan Hoca who had suggested Zorbaz hotel, it was only a few minutes of walk to the campus.

Without him, we would have had to rely on our iPhone; in fact, we were going to drive! circuitous roads following the iPhone from Zorbaz to the campus.  Which would have been much longer than walking, as we found out soon enough after Erdoğan Hoca kindly called to pick us up from the hotel and walk with us to the campus.  Along the way, he showed us the new- at least to me- SEV building (which by the way, people call me by that name here in the US, because “Sevgin” is too difficult for them to say…  The front yard, as you enter the SEV building grounds, is dedicated to Talas Amerikan Okulu (TAO), my first American school I had attended back in 1946 and graduated from in 1950, before entering Tarsus American Koleji/College (TAC).  We had actually driven all the way from Istanbul to Tarsus with a stop at TAO on the way, where we spent three wonderful days touring the Konak campus which is being renovated under the auspices of Erciyes University and the main building up on the hill which now houses a boarding school for underprivileged, bright students attending other municipal schools- all expenses paid by the forward looking Kayseri Büyük Şehir Belediyesi.  I also had the sentimental journey of doing my last skiing at the new Erciyes ski area which is very near Talas where I had first learned to ski on skiis that we learned to make ourselves in our TAO shop.

As we entered the gate of the Tarsus American College (TAC) after being graciously welcomed by the security personnel, my eyes searched for the Atatürk bust that used to face the gate only a couple of hundred feet away.  I remember that well, because I had in fact lifted the flag cover from the bust back in 1954, I believe, as the  student president (talebe başkanı).  Or, it may have been just before I had taken a group of students to Ankara in November 1953 to partake in the transfer of Atatürk’s casket from the Ethnography Museum to his final resting place, the Anıtkabir.  Of course, students who could go were selected according to certain criteria for each class, which both of my two brothers Yüksel and Erol had met in their first year of joining TAC from TAO, but in order to avoid any nepotism, only Yüksel came as shown here next to me in the picture.I still can hear the muffled drums of Chopin’s Funeral March being played by the white-gloved soldiers as teary-eyed many of us stood by on the designated side-lines watching an entourage of leaders led by President Celâl Bayar passing by in a procession of kilometers long… 

With these thoughts in mind inside the gate, I happily noticed that the bust had only been moved to the side of the Stickler Hall and that I was happy later to have my picture taken under his gaze….  But for the record, when I got home, I checked the pictures of the bust that were taken in 1953, in 2012 when Betty & I had stopped by TAC briefly and now in 2019, and noticed the plaques had different sayings of Atatürk as follows, respectively:

                  1953:     Hayatta En Hakiki Mürşit İlimdir;

                  2012:     Yaşamak Demek, Çalışmak Demektir;

                  2019:     Ey Türk gençliği!

Birinci vazifen, Türk İstiklâlini, Türk cumhuriyet’ini ilelebet muhafaza ve müdafaa etmektir

My eyes continued searching for what used to be flat iron “gate” on the ground near the then tennis courts, which also I found out to have been moved.  They looked much better.  We had learned that St. Paul of Tarsus had spent some years under that rather small iron “gate” leading to a “cave” where St. Paul presumably studied Christianity before he got out to proselytize on his travels throughout the Middle East.  By now I was getting used to the new layout with several modern buildings, including the new SEV campus.  If it weren’t for the Stickler building, I wouldn’t know where I was.  I hope it stays there forever!  If anything, it would be more than welcomed to put it on stilts so that it can be seen from anywhere in and about Tarsus, as it had been since its inception in 1888 until the building boom of recent times.  Same can be said about the TAO main building which could be seen on top of a hill from anywhere in Kayseri, but now is lost amongst huge McMansions surrounding all around Talas and iconic Ali Dağı near Erciyes mountain.

Having been acclimated to the campus, it was an easy walk the next day on Sunday for Betty and me to join about 50 other TAC alumni for a reception for our beloved teacher Haydar Göfer.  He arrived at the reception around 10:30 before noon and mingled with others reminiscing about the past years.  (From my own selfish point-of-view, I missed not having friends from the nineteen-fifties to chew the fat of those years. But It was great in filling the in-between years with those who were there.)  In the meantime, Haydar Hocasat on a couch and his students of fifty years or more ago came by to kiss his hand and tell stories with roaring laughter which sometimes could be heard all around.  Betty and I approached him and kissed his hands.  Somebody whispered in his ears that my wife and I had come all the way from America in celebration of his centennial.  After a little hesitation, he told me he couldn’t see well, but when I mentioned him who I was we hugged and kissed.  He pulled us to sit by him.  I then told him that I had brought something for him from the United States.  He was curious about it.  Since he can’t see well, I described to him as a beautiful crescent and star made of glass for one-year old baby boys.  Since, I told him, he had just finished his centennial birthday and started his first year for the second centennial, it was just made for him and put it around his neck with a red and white ribbon.  He thanked profusely.  We then continued our conversation raging from Turkish literature

classes of the nineteen-fifties, to my bringing him greetings of one of his students Yavuz Gömeç who couldn’t make it to what is happening in the current USA-Turkey relations, and the present conditions in Turkey.  I was amazed by his acute mind and his awareness of what was going on around the world. 

Betty Oktay, Sevgin Oktay and Haydar Göfer.

Around noon time, we were led to the Stickler auditorium where Haydar Hoca was situated in the middle of the stage with a beautiful scene of the Tarsus campus in the background.  Betty and I were given the front seats by Master of Ceremonies (MC), ’63 Akar Burduroğlu with a brief conversation with me to the effect that he would call on me to come up with my harmonica as a surprise and also to say a few words.  The MC opened the Centennial event by talking about our dear Haydar Göfer Hoca and asking what he himself should be doing in his age of 75 years for another 25 years to reach his age of 100.  In other words, whereas before Haydar Hoca was advertised to be giving one of his lectures on Turkish Literature, he was now being asked to give us a lesson on Life in General.  Haydar Hoca was firm in driving home that one should always do things in moderation and for enjoyment to be able to live long.  He gave examples of people whom he has known who would go for the bottle as a show-off for an “bottoms-up” act, rather than, say, sipping every drop for enjoyment.  In other words, not for the proverbial “live to eat/drink,” but “eat/drink to live.”  Or in just one word, Life is a “balancing” act in everything we do…. Then MC Akar Burduroğlu announced he had a surprise from America at which I jumped on the stage playing “Happy Birthday” on my harmonica.  I really do not know how it went, but on the second stanza I think some people were joining me by singing…   Afterwards, I picked up on the concept of “balance” in life at age near 84 in full agreement with Haydar Hoca. Then, there were a few questions from the floor, which Haydar Hoca answered with amazing acuity and clarity accompanied by good cheer.

The crowd was then invited to an outdoor feast of succulent lamb-kebab-wrap with delightful garnishments that put a delicious ending to a wonderful centennial celebration of a beloved teacher of ours, Haydar Göfer, with wishes of many more. . . 

As a postscript, let me add that it was a joy to meet some students the next day.  Betty and I walked to the campus for a last look at the Stickler Hall before we departed.  We ran into our dear friend Mithat Taner’68 and his friends.  They were heading to a meeting where they were to discuss some interesting findings about the beginnings of TAC as shown below on the very  left. 

Then Nihat volunteered to take us to the rear of the campus to show us some burial grounds dating back to 1909 and give us a very interesting history about the founders of TAC.   

Then as we wandered about, we came across a lemon tree from which we were offered and accepted gladly to take a few to the United States.  Then we heard music coming from the music building which we could see students practicing as we entered the building. Of course, not missing a beat, I took out my harmonica and joined in- which was music to my ear J, as they say- as we wound up our trip to a very vibrant Tarsus Amerikan Koleji at age 130 endowed with a most valuable teacher Haydar Göfer still teaching the lessons of life at age 101…

My wife Betty and I thank those who arranged this event and to those who attended it.  TAC looks very much alive and well with a wonderful future ahead having enthusiastic and energetic young students all ready to lead…

Tarsus American College, Turkey
by Sevgin Oktay, TAC’54

Social Media: @lightmillennium(Facebook & Twitter) @The Light Millennium(LinkedIn) @UN-DGC-CSO @UNDGCCSO

Posted on March 10, 2019.

The U.S. Turkish Library & Museum Project is under The Light Millennium Organization, Associated with the Department of Global Communications of the United Nations (formerly #UNDPINGO). http://www.turkishlibrary.us | http://www.isikbinyili.org | http://www.lightmillennium.org

"The U.S. Turkish Library & Museum For Friendship and Peace" project joined, and has been produced under the umbrealla of The Light Millennium Organization effective on October 15, 2015.