In Memoriam: Erol Turk


Austin Zhang ('17)

At just 15, Turk opened his own martial arts school in Westport and ran it until he left for college. It was in the gym that Turk found he had a knack for teaching.

Erol Turk, a beloved teacher who, for 25 years, brought physics to life at St. John’s by breaking boards, lying on beds of nails and jumping out of planes, passed away at his home on Dec. 23 due to complications brought on by a 2017 motorcycle accident. He was 51.

Turk grew up in Westport, New York, a small village near the Adirondack Mountains that he described as “a town with not even a single stoplight.” It was there that Turk was certified in scuba at 14, taking dives in Lake Champlain.

Always active, Turk developed an interest in contact sports at a young age when his father George, himself a boxer, encouraged his son to attend a karate class right after running a 5k race. What started as an effort by his parents to “calm the thousand jumping monkeys in my head,” according to Turk, developed into a lifetime of action and adventure. 

Turk attended junior high at Elizabethtown-Central School and graduated valedictorian of Westport Central High, forging intellectual curiosities in science, although he admitted to not being the strongest math or science student. One teacher even told him he would never make it as a physics teacher, which motivated him to become one. 

At just 15, Turk opened his own martial arts school in Westport and ran it until he left for college. It was in the gym that Turk found he had a knack for teaching. At the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Turk majored in Physics and earned a bachelor’s in Secondary Education. 

Turk became a third-degree black belt in karate, but he grew disillusioned with the arbitrary scoring system in its competitions. He then turned to boxing and kickboxing, becoming proficient in Muay Thai, a discipline known as “the art of eight limbs” due to its use of all body parts as a weapon. 

He also stumbled into the performing arts, appearing in two productions of the Nutcracker Suite and serving as the production manager for the New York state pageant.

“The ballet academy needed guys, and I wanted to dance with all the cute girls who wouldn’t talk to me otherwise,” Turk said in a 2013 interview with The Review Online

While teaching at Pittsfield High in Western Massachusetts in 1998, Turk earned a master’s in Education and Integrated Science from Cambridge College in Boston. 

Later that year, Turk was in search of a job while attending a national science teachers conference in Las Vegas. Roxie Allen, then St. John’s Science Department Chair, was also in attendance and looking to hire a physics teacher. They barely missed each other on account of Turk adventuring in nearby canyons, but they connected later over the phone. 

Turk’s résumé got everyone’s attention. In the section regarding his interests, he wrote: “kickboxing, martial arts, skiing, scuba diving, hiking, dancing, skydiving, traveling and punting chihuahuas for distance.” He was flown in for an interview.   

When Allen asked if he needed any materials for his sample teaching lesson, Turk requested some boards and cinder blocks. 

Turk, then 26, arrived on campus in the middle of winter wearing a white linen suit. He “wowed” the hiring committee with his first of many demonstrations breaking boards and concrete. Over the next 25 years, Turk became one of the most impactful mentors and colorful characters on campus. 

In 2001, Turk married Eliana Trevino in Monterrey, Mexico. After seven failed adoption attempts, Turk and his then-wife finally adopted two girls from Colombia, Olivia and Lucia in 2007. When they came home, Turk was prepared. He had spent a semester studying and befriending all the 12-year-olds in Ms. Prendes’s sixth grade advanced Spanish class and started the Knitting Club, which taught students how to crochet baby clothes for orphanages.

When Upper School Administrative Assistant Rebecca Leakey and her husband, fine arts teacher Anthony Leakey, were going through the adoption process themselves, she went to dinner with Turk to get his perspective. The conversation lasted six hours, starting at one restaurant until it closed, and relocating to House of Pies.

Along with Leakey and Science Department Chair Susan Bigge, Turk later formed the unofficial Adopted Daughters Club. 

Turk taught Physics Honors and Physics I. When he first started at St. John’s, physics was considered a “fringe elective” for STEM kids. Turk not only made physics accessible, he made it fun. By 2003, physics had become a graduation requirement. 

“Erol had a talent for walking kids through conceptual wilds,” Head of School Dan Alig said during a memorial for Turk on Jan. 3 at St. John the Divine. “He had a way of conveying intellectual exuberance and quirkiness, wholesome Upstate New York sincerity and kindhearted irreverence all at the same time.” 

Turk was known for his wry, occasionally dark humor to make physics engaging, often injecting himself into word problems. A favorite was having his students calculate whether or not an 8-year-old Turk might have killed someone by dropping a nickel off the Empire State Building. 

In an effort to bring physics to life, Turk would demonstrate lying on a bed of nails, incorporate the footage of himself skydiving into his lessons and even give lectures after inhaling helium and sulphur hexafluoride — chemical compounds that made his voice both impossibly high and low, respectively. He also created the Rube Goldberg Machine project, now a staple of physics classes, and was instrumental in incorporating Promethean ActivBoards into the classroom.

Although Turk loved to playfully tease students about the stress of taking physics, even having “demotivational” posters tacked up in his classroom, he was also an advocate of mental wellness. 

In 2013, Turk started the Boys to Men Club, a school-sponsored forum for male students to discuss the challenges in navigating manhood. Turk also frequently taught Krav Maga to members of Women Helping Empower Each Other, coached a kickboxing unit in P.E. and would often give up his lunch period to give tutorials in taekwondo, demonstrating the necessary connection between confidence and effective self-defense.

For years, Turk paired his love for martial arts and teaching by staging the Physics of Breaking Boards and Concrete in the VST. Spurred on by rock music and the assistance of several trusting colleagues, Turk commanded Newton’s Second Law to kick, punch and smash his teaching materials to mere rubble and splinters.

Through his infectious mix of sarcasm, empathy and adventurous spirit, Turk quickly became a student favorite. He sponsored the Student Affairs Council and was frequently asked to write the most college recommendation letters of any faculty member. He also regularly made Texas-shaped pancakes for his advisory on the burners in the physics room.

As much time and effort Turk spent on his students, he was also there for his colleagues in the best and worst of times. Turk often hosted faculty get-togethers at his home — including wedding and baby showers — all featuring his famous apple pie. When former science teacher Eva Chan was undergoing chemotherapy, he drove her to and from school each day. 

Beyond the classroom, Turk had a zest for life. He skydived, made tours across America on his motorcycle and trained for his return to the ring in Thailand. 

“I go skydiving because my mom told me I couldn’t, and it’s cool to teach about,” Turk said in 2013. 

In 2017, Turk was involved in a motorcycle accident when a minivan cut in front of him as he was on his way to school. For the most active and expressive man on campus, paralysis was going to be his toughest fight yet.

His approach to the physical therapy process was trademark Turk: “The most challenging thing has been getting my therapists as motivated as I am,” Turk said in a 2018 interview. And after grueling therapy sessions, his door was always open for visits from students and faculty, greeting each visitor with a few puns and a “how’s campus?”

When his return to teaching was announced during an all-school assembly, Turk received a standing ovation from everyone in attendance. He was awarded the TC Evans Memorial Award, which was established in 1963 by the prefects to reward devotion to the School through spirited and continuous support of the School and its activities. 

Less than a year after the accident, Turk made his return to the classroom by proctoring study halls. He would often wake up at 5 a.m. to arrive on campus, knowing it would take two hours every day to get ready. He resumed teaching physics the following semester. 

While it was clear Turk would never soar through the sky or enter a kickboxing ring again, he maintained his wry sense of humor. In a 2018 interview, he discussed how he once told his students, who were attempting to construct an elaborate Rube Goldberg project, that if they couldn’t find the parts they needed, “they’re probably in my neck.”

In the five years since the accident, Turk proved that paralysis was no match for his unflagging optimism. 

“I’m proud to say that the person I aspired to be before the accident is the person that I am now,” Turk said in 2018.

Amid all of his adventurous pursuits, Turk maintained his positive perspective. 

“I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I’m someone who likes to enjoy life. It’s not the number of years you get to live, it’s how much life you fit into those years.” Turk said. “There’s a whole bunch of things I’m very lucky to have gotten to do in my life, and I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Turk is preceded in death by his father, George Turk. He is survived by his mother, Hanna Kissam, his stepfather, his daughters and his companion, Kimberly. His remains will be scattered in the Adirondack Mountains.

Contributions to Habitat for Humanity in Turk’s honor would be greatly appreciated.

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