Theodore M. Focke


The material below is exerpted from C. H. Cramer, Case Institute of Technology, A Centennial History, 1880-1980,  1980, Case Western Reserve University.

Theodore M. Focke (1908-1944)

Theodore Moses Focke served Case for more than fifty years as a member of the faculty and dean.

His great-grandparents were born in Germany and came to America during the colonial period as part of the great influx of Teutonic immigrants. Theodore was born in Massillon, Ohio, in 1871–when Cleveland was a distant city. His birthplace was on the Ohio Canal, whose horsedrawn boats provided the chief connection with the growing city on the south shore of Lake Erie. He graduated from Case in civil engineering in 1892 and was immediately appointed instructor in mathematics at an annual salary of $600, paid quarterly; after a year in this position he spent three more at Oberlin as a tutor in physics and chemistry. He next went to the University of Gottingen, then a world center of learning in mathematics and physics, and received his doctorate in 1898 on submission of his dissertation titled “The Thermal Conductivity of Various Kinds of Glass.” With two friends he also engaged in a strenuous extracurricular activity; they traveled by bicycle 2,000 miles from Germany to the Mediterranean coast, coming back by way of the Alps. Returning to Case as a member of the mathematics department he went up the academic ladder, becoming Kerr Professor and head of the department from 1908 until his retirement in 1943; in 1918 he became the first dean of the institution, serving in this capacity for a quarter of a century. It was a trying moment to begin his work as dean; a world war going on, and the Student Army Training Corps had taken over the campus; its officers knew little about an academic program but believed in stern discipline. After minor infractions of the rules the commanding officer would send his men to bed, awaken the detachment at 2 a.m., and march it down Liberty Boulevard to Lake Erie and back again. Focke was outraged, and powerless to do anything about it.

He did not publish extensively in scholarly journals; his forte was virtuosity as teacher and counselor. In this capacity his extraordinary talent was sorely needed initially because President Howe manifested little interest in students and was ill at ease with them. “Teddy” Focke maintained an open door for students seeking aid and advice; he enjoyed especially the counseling of the more fractious students who came to see him. Almost all found in him human understanding, although they did not always agree with what he said and did. He had an unusual knack of handling students, inspiring respect and affection. His memory was exceptional but highly selective. He seldom forgot a student’s name or failed to compliment an outstanding work, but he could not recall a faulty performance; in his credo merit was forever praised, failure was never censured….

[President William E.] Wickenden once said that out of a total of 4,500 Case graduates during Focke’s long tenure not more than a hundred or two missed his influence as counselor or teacher. As dean he had a great interest in intelligence tests and shared Howe’s belief in the quality, rather than quantity of students; the result was that most graduates turned out to be successful and were appreciative for what he had done for them. His popularity was demonstrated by the thunderous ovations he received at alumni meetings. In 1935 he was honored with the First Alumni Award for Meritorious Service. In 1942 alumni gave $10,000 to the college for the establishment of the Focke Scholarship Trust Fund.

He reached seventy in 1941 but served as dean and departmental head for two more years because of the severe shortage of faculty during World War II. When he began his education at Case at seventeen in 1888, the freshman class had but 35 students; when he was seventy, the total number of students, in all categories, was 1,000 by day and 800 by night. After retirement in 1943 he continued as a part-time teacher; he noted wryly that students seemed to be dismayed that, although he was nearing eighty, he did not use a cane. He avocational interest in music continued; he was a strong supporter of the Case Glee Club, played violin in a faculty string quartet, and was a dedicated patron of the the Cleveland Orchestra. He died in 1949 at the age of seventy-eight.