Four Tech grads from four different countries reunite in Atlanta for the first time in 50 years

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

From left, Carlos Casabonne, Angel Auad, Tristan Ruiz and Nebil Sedki at Sedki's home in Roswell. The four men had not all been together since they developed a friendship as graduate students in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the early 1960s. (Photo by Joshua Stewart.)

The bonds of a Georgia Tech education are strong. So strong, in fact, that four graduate school classmates can scatter throughout the western hemisphere and, 50 years later, remain engaged in a deep and abiding friendship. It’s a friendship that has enveloped their wives, and it’s one that rekindled this fall as the entire group gathered in Atlanta for the first time since 1964.

Nebil Sedki now lives in Roswell in a house he and his wife, Marlo, have called home for a quarter century.

On a recent chilly fall evening, they gathered with three classmates from Sedki’s time as a graduate student studying structural engineering in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The couples have stayed in touch through Christmas card over the years — more often now that email makes the distance between them smaller. They’ve visited one another every 15 years or so, too. But not since leaving Tech have all four men and their wives been in the same place together.

It’s one of the funny quirks of life, fate, the universe, God — whatever you believe — that these four men came together at Tech in the early ‘60s. Carlos Casabonne and Tristan Ruiz had Fulbright Scholarships (Ruiz said the U.S. government encouraged recipients to allow the program to match them with a school, which is what he did). Angel Auad had a similar grant from the U.S. State Department. And Sedki got a World Student Fund scholarship, though he had other offers in hand, too.

Sedki's photo in the 1964 Blueprint. (Courtesy of Blueprint Archives.)

“I had scholarships from two schools, Georgia Tech and the University of Washington, but I chose Georgia Tech because I knew it was a better engineering school,” Sedki said. “I think I made the right decision.”

It certainly worked out for Sedki. For all of these men, actually.

Sedki now runs his own structural engineering firm in Atlanta, Sedki & Russ Engineers.

Ruiz is coordinator of port engineering and geospatial systems for the Instituto Mexicano del Transporte, an agency of the Mexican government.

Casabonne is general manager of the largest structural engineering consulting firm in Peru, Gallegos Casabonne Arango Quesada.

Auad runs a construction company and is director of Tigo in Paraguay, a leading mobile-phone company. He was responsible for bringing mobile-telephone technology to Paraguay in 1992. He’s also the new president of the Paraguayan American Chamber of Commerce and the honorary consul of South Africa to Paraguay.

Quena and Angel Auad on graduation day in June 1964. See Tech Tower in the background? (Photo Courtesy of Quena and Angel Auad.)

“The friendship was so strong, that it’s like the time hasn’t passed,” Casabonne said. “It’s amazing,” his wife, Yvonne confirmed.

“We’re like family,” said Auad’s wife, Quena.

That bond, the group agreed, came from a shared focus on working hard to complete graduate school and a shared unfamiliarity with their new environment.

“Four people that came from different places, alone, with the same requirements, with little English: that makes a strong relationship,” said Bertha Ruiz, Tristan’s wife.

“[We had] the same commitment and the same purpose,” Auad said. “We were determined to do this, and that’s why our friendship developed.”

Angel and Quena Auad were the only married couple when the men attended Tech, though several of the other men were dating their now-wives at the time. That made the Auads’ tiny apartment near campus a regular gathering place for the four students. Ruiz recalled dinner invitations. Sedki remembered going to church together.

“If Yvonne would go visit Carlos, they would come to our house,” Angel Auad said. “Amazingly, they all got married with that girl and stayed together for 50 years.”

“That was hard work, I can tell you,” Quena Auad interjected, to roars of laughter from the other wives.

When you sit and talk with these four men and their wives, the conversation tends to go off the rails like that.

Perhaps that’s to be expected, given their 50 years of friendship and the fact that they see each other so rarely.

They talked of the degree famed Georgia Tech Dean of Students George Griffin gave to the wives of graduate students: a Mistress of Patience in Husband Engineering. (Quena assures us it’s still hanging on the Auads’ wall, and she’s quick to remind Angel of its presence.)

The wives of graduate students at Georgia Tech in the '60s received a degree the same day their husbands did: a Mistress of Patience in Husband Engineering. It was presented at a special ceremony by famed Tech Dean of Students George Griffin. (Image Courtesy of Angel and Quena Auad.)

They also recalled their early struggles with the language. Sedki had learned English from Jesuit priests in his native Iraq and had no problems. Ruiz had learned the language from a German school in Mexico City, but he recalls arriving on campus three days before classes began and running into a few issues.

“Those three days were very sad because the campus was empty,” he said. “I went to the Varsity — somebody recommended it to me — and I said, ‘I want a glass of milk,’ in a very German accent [he says it “MEELK, like “feet”]. The counter girl said ‘what?!’ After gesturing like I was milking a cow she exclaimed, ‘Oh milk!’” [MIHLK, with the softer “i”].

They hadn’t met yet, but Casabonne had arrived early from his own language program in Pennsylvania. And he was having his own difficulties.

“I went to a cafeteria to have lunch or breakfast, and I couldn’t get through to the people that [served food in] the cafeteria,” he said. “They couldn’t understand me, nor I them. So it was ham and eggs every day.”

Auad, who spent six weeks at the University of Texas, said he could communicate well enough and understand other people. Until he landed in the Deep South.

“I took a plane and landed in the Atlanta airport, and I went to a guy and I asked him how I could get to the YMCA. When the guy answered me, I almost started crying, because I couldn’t understand a single word. The southern accent killed me,” Auad said.

“I went to present myself to the dean of graduate students and the secretary said, ‘Well, where are you from?’ And with the best English I could handle: ‘I’m from Paraguay.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Well I know you are from far away. I just wanted to know from where.’

“Afterwards, any time we crossed each other on campus, she would say ‘Hey, the guy from far away.’”

Tristan Ruiz and Angel Auad on graduation day in June 1964. The men say many of their professors could not tell them apart — can you tell here? (Photo Courtesy of Quena and Angel Auad.)

They all eventually returned to “far away” after they finished their master’s degrees (in three academic quarters, by the way). All except Sedki, who stayed in Atlanta and raised two children, both of whom are now Georgia Tech alumni themselves. He has maintained a relationship with his alma mater through his business, working on apartments and dormitories on the Tech campus, the old Alexander Memorial Coliseum, CEE’s Structural Engineering and Materials Lab, and the Architecture Building, among other projects.

He’s still working, even after decades of success. They all are.

But they all took time to spend a few days back at their alma mater, celebrating Homecoming 2014 50 years after they left.

And all of these years later, they say the homecoming feels like, well, coming home.