ORANGE – As a teenager in Ukraine, Ivan Lobay saw the words “keep smiling” in an English magazine. It became his motto for the rest of his life.
Now 103 years of age, the retired engineering professor, who has worked or studied in seven countries, speaks six languages, opened the first mechanical engineering lab at the University of New Haven and taught post-graduate mechanical engineering at Yale University, is an inspiration to anyone he meets.
But what captures the countless people he has influenced throughout his life are his resilient, infectious optimism; intelligence; kindness mirrored in his lively blue eyes and the easily shared wisdom that he has acquired over 10 decades of struggle and victory.
According to his daughter Maria, 70, who devotedly cares for him, Mr. Lobay loves life, has a searching mind, is esteemed by students and colleagues and puts God at the center of his peace, joy and remarkable spirit. In fact, he greets everyone with a loud “viva.”
On the occasion of his 100th birthday, letters and proclamations came in from universities, engineering associations, colleagues and government officials, not to mention an apostolic blessing from Pope Benedict XVI.
Mr. Lobay was born in 1911 in a small village in western Ukraine. As a child, he saw explosions and killings during World War I, experienced hunger and ached for his father, who left for long periods of time to fight in the Austro-Hungarian Army.
Education was limited to one teacher he adored. A lack of medicine contributed to Ivan’s witnessing the early deaths of two of his four siblings.
His mother held the small family together, including through prayer times in their Ukrainian Greek-Catholic home, for which the children were lined up against the wall. Mr. Lobay recalls that that positioning was a mystery to him, but somehow it made him feel special.
It was an uncle who put a catechism in his hands and told him it was the most important book he would ever read. The young man didn’t waste time memorizing it while lying on a haystack.
In high school, his seeing a bicycle for the first time whetted his appetite for engineering. For a time, he lost his faith, believing that science had all the answers. But when his religion teacher didn’t pressure him to return to the church, he realized that he had to find the answers inside himself and began to turn back to God.
In 2001, when Pope John Paul II beatified 28 Ukrainian martyrs and servants of God, one of those beatified was Ivan’s insightful teacher, Mykola Konrad. Another future saint-in-the-making who came into his life was the successor of the founder of Opus Dei, Bishop (now Blessed) Álvaro del Portillo.
Mr. Lobay moved to Poland and then Czechoslovakia, where he earned his mechanical engineering degree. There, during World War II, he met and married his wife Halyne, also from Ukraine.
Mr. Lobay first saw her sitting in the audience of a theater in Brno; he fell in love with and married the talented economist and artist, and they went on to have two children, Maria, born in Czechoslovakia, and Halyne, born in Venezuela.
With a passion for engineering and teaching, then-Professor Lobay taught and worked in Venezuela for 14 years; moved to the United States in 1962 and became a citizen in 1968; worked in Algeria for five years, and came back to his home in Orange, which he calls “the promised land,” in 1982. That same year, he returned to his beloved Ukraine to consult.
Maria says students recall his demanding yet compassionate teaching style, sometimes giving them his notes so they would pay attention to the lecture. At Yale, he would proudly fill the lecture hall, often remarking, “My students keep me young.”
He also believed in letting them retake a failed test, reasoning that they may be dealing with problems, so why let one test ruin their life? The important point, he has told her, is that they know their subject.
When Maria, who holds a degree in musicology, became a teacher, his advice to her, in turn, was that teachers need to “know their subject inside and out and love their students.”
Often, he would look to nature to help shape his personal philosophy. Once, after seeing how freely birds move through the air, he reflected on the importance of freedom to the human soul and spirit.
Ever the searcher, Professor Lobay began to study quantum physics and astrophysics after his retirement. “Learn always, everywhere, from everyone and everything,” he would tell his daughter.
Today, he lives at home, exercises daily, walks with a walker, sings Ukrainian songs in a booming, in-key voice, listens to classical music, enjoys the company of friends and continues to be fed by observing nature.
He still has the ability to impact lives. Maria recalled that once in a doctor’s office, after noticing that no one was smiling or talking, her father called out in his booming voice, “I am Ivan.” It changed the moment. People began laughing and talking to each other in reaction to his exuberance.
After reading an article about her father in a local newspaper, a parishioner at Holy Infant Parish told Maria, “I will not complain again.” Another parishioner said to her, “He is a saint.” And when the parish spontaneously invited Mr. Lobay to sing a Ukrainian hymn during a Christmas service, a woman declared, “He has changed my life.”
Mr. Lobay has willingly given his advice to colleagues, friends and family over the years. Among the centenarian’s pearls of wisdom:
“Don’t be afraid. Be brave, have courage. Go ahead to the future.
“God is a mystery, the superpower for all the world.
“We cannot be happy if we do not help others be happy.
“Use your head and your heart; God is the one who guides your head and heart.
“Family is the source, the foundation of life.”
And finally, “Life is a mystery; you can go with God or against God. Don’t go the wrong way.”