CSUN mourns loss of former chair

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A mournful version of Frederick Chopin’s Nocturne piece was played in remembrance of Omar Zahir at a memorial service in his honor Monday, as faculty, students and family held back tears over his recent death.

More than 200 people attended the service in the University Student Union Northridge Center in memory of Zahir, chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department before his death on Aug. 26 during a department meeting.

According to the Los Angeles county coroner’s department, Zahir died of arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease. He was 49. Zahir had been a chemistry professor at CSUN since 1990.

The service lasted an hour as speakers remembered fondly the impact that Zahir had on their lives.

Cynthia Desrochers, professor in the Elementary Education Department and director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, remembered how Zahir refused to put up with the high failure rate of so many students in his Chemistry 321 – Chemical Analysis I – class.

“He believed that the students could do better and was willing to give of himself to help them out,” Desrochers said. “He set up extra help sessions for students during his own time so that students could improve themselves.”

Zahir’s methods became well known around the department, Desrochers said.

“When a fellow professor said that he did not have the time to spend more time with students Zahir answered forcefully that putting the extra time in was his job as a teacher. He was absolutely a treasure,” she said.

Mark Libardoni, research scientist and CSUN graduate, was one of those students in Chemistry 321 whom Zahir helped.

“He sat down with me and took the time to work with me,” Libardoni said. “He told me to ‘Just think about (chemistry) and it will work if you get a chance.’ “

Libardoni credits Zahir with inspiring him to get his master’s and always pushing him to strive harder in his education and profession.

“He was always so proud of me,” Libardoni said. “I am a better person because of him.”

Dean Skovlin, emeritus professor and former chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, remembered the day Zahir walked into his office in 1989 to interview for an open teaching position.

“The thing I remember was his smile,” said Skovlin, fighting back tears. “His smile made you ‘feel,’ just to see it. He had so many wonderful attributes that made him much more than a good teacher.”

CSUN President Jolene Koester spoke of how the loss of Zahir will effect the university.

“For all of us, Omar Zahir’s death is piercing and sad,” Koester said. “Omar’s spirit will contribute and guide us here at CSUN. That is an incredible tribute to an incredible member of this faculty.”

Robert McDonald can be reached at robert.mcdonald.690@csun.edu.