Memoirs of Dr. Keung Luke

(As told to Irene Howard by Keung Luke.)

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I was born in 1933 (1935 on US paperwork) in Canton, China.  I was the youngest of my mother’s five children.  We were two boys and three girls.  The eldest girl, May, passed away some time ago.  The third eldest sister, Grace, also passed away.  Right now I have one living sister, Anna, and my older brother, Desmond.  My brother had two daughters, Pamela and Kristina.  Kristina passed away suddenly. She was teaching English in China after graduating from college.  I received the shocking news of her death while I was on sabbatical leave in Australia in the 1970’s.  

My mother, Ng So Ning, was a very religious woman.  She was born on a day that the Chinese considered to be an unlucky day.  To avoid the devils harming the family, her parents put her on a board in a large outdoor toilet bowl.   The next day my grandfather came out to check on her.  She was still there, so they brought her home.   At that time, there was a Christian Chinese Church that came to the village to teach the children, and she heard the gospel from them.  When she was older, she begged her parents to send her to True Life School, which is a Christian school.  At about the same time, she received a revelation from an angel to teach the gospel.  From then on she was very faithful.  I remember that when I was a boy I saw her read nothing but the Bible every day.  No gossip, nothing else.  I was naughty, so while she was on her knees praying on the bed, I sat on her back like I was riding a horse.  My mother never scolded me for that. My mother impressed me so much, that to this day I am a strong believer.

When I was about ten years old and living in our village during the Japanese occupation, I contracted diphtheria, a disease that has a yellow membrane that grows over the windpipe.  When it closes, it chokes the person to death.  My mom hired a woman in our village who carried me on her back to see a doctor.  I refused to be carried by a woman because I thought that the other boys will laugh at me.  So we reached a compromise that I would walk out of the village first, and then let her carry me on her back.  When we reached the doctor, the doctor immediately diagnosed it as diphtheria and told my mother that it would cost a lot of money for a vaccine shot to heal me.  My mother said that she would pay even though she didn’t have much money, and then I got the shot.  A few days later I was completely healed, but a couple of other village boys died from it.  My mother saved my life.

I still remember that after I was healed and ready to go back to the village school, my mother put her hand on my shoulder in the morning and together we enjoyed the outdoor view of the mountains before I left to go back to school.  Another incident in which my mother helped me was when we were sitting outside of the house and looked at the sky together because it was very dark and we could see the stars and the Milky Way.  She told me that is a silver river that separates a cowboy and a cowgirl that are in love.  They both went across the river to see each other, but could not.  Not until I started teaching astronomy many years later did I realize that it was the Milky Way.  

Another incident about my mother was her hard work in feeding others.  She also carried water from the mountain and put it in a large barrel and then used a chemical to purify the water, and that was the source of our water.  My mother was very devoted to God.  She preached the gospel in the village and the nearby towns.  Once, during a Japanese airplane attack, she told people not to leave the church, otherwise they would be shot to death.  Unfortunately, some of them did not listen and went outside and some were wounded and others were shot to death.  Another incident was that our neighbor had a pig.  The pig was sick, and my mom felt the urge to heal it.  She said to the Lord, “Lord how can I heal the pig?”  But she put her arm around the pig and prayed, and the pig was healed.  She was very zealous for the Lord.  I deeply admire her in every way.  In one incident, she refused to buy from the village elders pork that was offered to the idols.  The elders punished her by coming one night to destroy our vegetable garden.   After the war we went back to live in Canton.  My mother sent me to a boarding school for about a year, until my father brought me to the United States.  That opened the door for a new life for me.  My father took me from New York to Providence, Rhode Island, to visit my mom’s younger sister.  I was amazed that they fed us fried eggs for breakfast because up to that time we only had fried eggs as a dish to eat with our rice.  My father left me with my uncle.  My uncle put me in a restaurant called Me Hong, and then my father went back to New York. This was in 1948 when I was fifteen years old.           

My father used a traditional method of bringing me over as the son of a friend.  I have an older “paper” brother but I believe that he has passed away already.  At that time my father knew that he had incurable cancer, so he brought me to Providence, Rhode Island, to stay with my mother’s sister’s husband.  Instead of letting me stay in his home with the rest of his family, my uncle put me to work in a restaurant and had me live upstairs in the kitchen with the rest of the workers.

On Christmas day in 1948 I received a phone call from one of my father’s friends letting me know that my father had just passed away.  I felt very lonely and lost.  I took a train to New York and my uncle and my father’s friends helped me to arrange the funeral service for him.  I wrote my mother a letter informing her of my father’s passing.  My mother was living in Hong Kong at the time.  She had not seen my father since he left for the US many years before because they did not have the money.

We found a cemetery plot in a graveyard in the back of a factory building.  We arranged to have a small tombstone with his name and dates on it.  It is still there today because my mother did not want to move his body.  When the funeral was over, I returned to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend Roger Williams Junior High School.  I was good in math and my homeroom teacher found out when she gave me two algebra problems and I easily solved them.   Her name was Mrs. McCabe.  She was a very kind lady and very supportive of my studies.  I graduated in 1950 and moved on to Hope High School.  I was good in all of the subjects and earned the grade of “A” in all subjects for three years, except for one “B”.  When the time came for me to leave Roger Williams Junior High School, I chose Hope High School.  My performance as a student remained top notch and they put me in a regular tenth grade class.  The first semester I got straight “A’s” and my homeroom teacher, Mr. Smith, called me over and told me that I had straight “A’s”.  I was very happy, even though I had to work from 3:00 PM to 9:00 PM after school in the restaurant.  I learned to cook both Chinese and English dishes such as liver and lobster.  When I was not busy, I did my homework in my head.  During the summertime, I had to work six days with only one day off.  I talked with the cooks frequently about what we will do on our day off.  I usually went to see a movie and I also enrolled in a correspondence course.  I can’t believe that a man from the correspondence course came to see me one day and signed me up.  I chose Civil Engineering, so on my days off I went to see a movie and do my homework on the Civil Engineering course.  When I finished high school my brother rescued me from the kitchen by bringing me to wait on tables at a restaurant in Farmingdale, Long Island. I escaped from the kitchen, but the other three boys were less fortunate and somehow got trapped in the restaurant.  I often wonder what happened to them, especially when I visited Me Hong again and saw that it became a parking lot.  I also remember when a boy slightly older than me one day hit me with a sucker punch and I got a black eye.  At the time I wondered whether I should go to school or wait until the black eye was gone.  I decided to go right back to school. The boss who was the head cook was kind to me and threw out that boy who punched me. My physics teacher, Mr. Cunningham, wondered what happened when he saw my black eye.  He said, “Did you return a good punch, too?”  I did not answer. 

In the restaurant in Long Island, life was easier for me.  I waited on tables, and I got to sit down when there were no customers.  Still, the work was hard because we had to clean the floor each night after work.  After work, for about a week, my brother took me to a large empty place and taught me how to ride a bicycle.  I kept saying, “Push me faster and faster”.  I returned to work there for a second summer.     

In my stay at Hope High School, one counselor was called Mr. Weiss.  He was extremely helpful to me and did everything that he could to get me into MIT.  I also applied to Brown University in my hometown and was accepted, but I did not attend it.  I chose MIT instead in part because Brown University gave me a $300.00 scholarship and MIT gave me a $400.00 scholarship.  

At that time there was a real crisis in my education.  My brother wanted me to quit MIT and wait on tables to support my sister’s education saying that she has only a few years to get an education and meet someone to get married.  In the last minute, my lawyer in New York was able to help us cash some of my father’s savings bonds.  It was difficult because my father died without a will, but my lawyer was good enough to cash the savings bonds anyway.  Praise the Lord that the money was enough for my sister to go back to school, and therefore I was also allowed to continue with my education.  

From then on I had no more financial trouble, and I was able to get my B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees all at MIT in Electrical Engineering and Nuclear Engineering.  I completed my Ph.D. in 1964.  While I was at MIT, I did some of my M.S. research which was able to help my professor in his research.  He was so pleased, that he nominated me for the Honor Society called Sigma Xi.  I believe that the Lord used the financial problems that I nearly had with my education as a test of my faithfulness to Him. 

I did my Ph.D. research at NASA-Lewis on thermionics in Cleveland, Ohio for three years.  My boss had planned for me to stay on to eventually lead a group because thermionics was a hot subject at that time.  The Lord had a different plan for me.  My “paper” brother’s family went to the immigration office to confess their true identity, so I had no choice but to do the same.  Because of this, I lost my US citizenship immediately and I had to resign from NASA.  I was suddenly jobless and without citizenship, and I had to move to New York to stay with my brother and his wife. 

I had nothing to do for over a year, until one day I saw an ad in Physics Today from a company needing someone with experience in thermionics.  I called them and they offered me the job right away because they had no other applicant.  The name of the company was Unified Associates and it was located in Pasadena, California.  I immediately packed up my car, my green Rambler.  

It took about one week to get to Pasadena, and I arrived safely.  I immediately rented an apartment within walking distance to the company.  Once I started working, I realized it was an ill-conceived experiment, impossible to perform.  I struggled with it until the contract expired in a few months, and then I was laid off.  

So again, I was jobless.  At that time I was attending the First Chinese Baptist Church of Los Angeles.  Because I was unemployed I was able to drive my Pastor’s wife, Mrs. Gracie Lin, around.  One day she asked her husband, Dr. Timothy Lin, to ask the Associate Pastor to ask around for a job opening.  His name was Dr. Murphy Lum.  He called Dr. Charlie Roberts because Dr. Roberts was a consultant at Douglas Aircraft where Dr. Murphy Lum worked.  Dr. Roberts immediately asked me to come in for an interview.  Right there on the spot, he offered me the position of Assistant Professor of Physics at California State University, Long Beach.

Of course, I immediately accepted his offer and moved into an office with John Hutcherson.  The first course that I taught was on Electricity and Magnetism.  I made it too advanced, so I found a note from a student left over on his desk criticizing me.  I learned my lesson and reworked my lessons in a much easier and appropriate way.  The next semester, I was given Astronomy 100 to teach.

In my second year at CSULB I changed my office, and my new office partner was Dr. Simon George.  He was active in campus politics and very outgoing and friendly. He was involved in several outreach programs and the campus Science Museum. Over the years, Dr. Simon George and I became good friends. We went out to eat together quite a few times and he often also treated our office staff. Sometimes we went shopping together when there was a sale on the weekend.  Both of us taught our classes wearing a suit and tie.  It was a different time back then.  One time Dr. George bought a multi-colored jacket from a men’s clothing store called Silverwoods.  I admired it very much and he sold it to me eventually.  Later he laughed and told me that he made a profit because he sold it for more than he originally paid for it.  We both laughed about it many times. Dr. George always had a smile on his face. We remained office partners until our retirement.  Unfortunately, he has since passed away.    

Around 1964 our First Chinese Baptist Church in Los Angeles had a new pastor, Dr. Timothy Lin.  He was very powerful and he made me the Sunday School Director.  Together we built the Sunday school up to an attendance of over 1000 students.  His preaching brought in the students, and my job was to find room for the students.  We divided the Sunday school up into two sessions so we could provide more space for all of the students. With his spiritual leadership, the Sunday school went from around 200 students, to over 1,000 in about five years.  I also ran the Vacation Bible School for several years.  At about that time, Dr. Lin had a vision of opening up more churches along the Southern Coast of Los Angeles, California.  Our church at Fountain Valley is one of them.  My co-worker, Mrs. Millie Joe, and I started with an Orange County map and an Orange County phone book and picked out names with the Chinese surnames around that area.  We then sent out teams to visit those homes.  “We called fellow Christians as brothers and sisters.”  We found one location, and after a few years we moved to the present more spacious location in Fountain Valley.  Many brothers and sisters came down to help to visit the Chinese homes and helped us to invite them to Vacation Bible School.  One of the homes that we visited was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hsu.  Their son and their daughter came for VBS.  At that time in our church there was a family by the name of Enoch.  The boy was a young man about high school age and his name was Rex.  He met Mr. and Mrs. Enoch’s family and fell in love with their eldest daughter, Judy.  They got married.  They gave their first son the name of Luke.  I am not claiming that he named him after me, but maybe he did.

Around 1965 I gave a colloquium and I met the student Richard Whitely for the first time.  I had $50,000 from NASA at that time, and I used it to support Richard Whitely to do research under me.  We wrote a book together on the Automatic Controls of Instruments including a collection of data.  One student who took our class used it to automatically open and close a pressure tank and in her work she even impressed her boss, and her boss’s boss.  I feel great satisfaction in the fact that our laboratory work could be carried over to the work in industry.  Richard Whiteley and I collaborated and taught the combination lecture and laboratory course Physics 480/580, Computer Interfacing in Experimental Physics. In my travels to Spain I gave a copy of our book to a faculty there, and he used it to automate his experiment.       

To prepare me to teach, I first attended Dr. Cramer Schultz’s classes.  He was very helpful and gradually I developed my own lessons and added to them my own slides.  Over the years I added a complete set of slides to go with the lessons.  One day a student told me she appreciates the slides because they are very visual and she is a visual person.       At about the same time, Dr. Simon George encouraged me to submit a file for the Outstanding Professor Award.  I submitted a file, and the Outstanding Professor Committee chose me for the award.   This award was given to me in 1992-93.  Afterwards my file was submitted to the Chancellor’s Office for the Outstanding Professor Award of the CSU System.  The faculty member from another CSU university who specialized in Shakespeare won.  But I did have the honor of attending a dinner for the occasion, and I took a picture with the Chancellor.  I felt a great honor to be a part of this ceremony because my students wrote many supportive letters for me.

I enjoyed teaching Astronomy because it involves knowledge in many fields such as nuclear physics, atomic physics, and a visual presentation of the world through excellent slides that I have collected.  For example, I have a slide of the Time Magazine showing the result of the collision between a huge rock and the earth.  It is possible that the Gulf of Mexico was a result of it.  

It is a great satisfaction to relate a current theory and to see the revival of the theory of mass extinction.  While I was teaching, I had my connection at NASA introduce me to research in solar cells by Dr. Calahan at JPL.  While teaching I had time during the summers to take part in this research.  I published a paper in the Journal of Applied Physics.  It was well received by the professionals.  It was cited over 200 times.  The work at JPL also added to my income.  I had a chance to work with Dr. Von Roos who introduced me to his theory of solar cells.  I did the actual calculations for him.  This started our collaboration.  He worked out the theory, and I did the calculation.  

Dr. Von Roos was instrumental in introducing me to the world of the theory of solar cells.  I made regular trips from Long Beach to Pasadena to work with him.  At his passing, Irene Howard, a staff member in the Physics and Astronomy Department, even wrote a poem about him.  He was a heavy smoker and died of lung cancer.  When his wife finally met Irene, she said, “So, you’re the one who wrote a poem about him.” Those were good times for me.  As the research eventually changed to the subject of lasers and photorefractive research, I left that field and no longer went to JPL.

I am grateful to the Lord for giving me my job at CSULB. I loved helping the students. I especially enjoyed spending time with Kevin Kwok Chan and the Hong Kong Alumni. We even went on trips together and kept in close contact over the years. I helped students with their studies as well as with their other goals in life. One student, Huong Nguyen, even went on to medical school after I was her mentor at CSULB. I made life-long friends there. When I was not doing research during the summers, I traveled to many countries and took up photography. I had wonderful vacations with tour groups, and also with my brother Desmond, his wife Nancy, and his daughters Pamela, and Kristina. I loved to take pictures of nature and historical landmarks. I also loved attending the First Chinese Baptist Church where I made so many friends. From the influence of my mother, my faith and love for the Lord took a primary place in my life.

During my illnesses, over the last few years, I have been showered with blessings sent by the Lord. So many friends have come over to visit me, to bring me delicious food, and to pray with me. Pastor Godfrey came so often to pray with me, Dr. Melvin Lim and Dr. Daniel Lim gave me expert medical advice, and Robert Lee arranged for a stair lift chair to be installed when I could no longer walk up the stairs in my condominium. Many friends took turns driving me to my dialysis sessions and to doctor visits. I would like to thank each and every one from the bottom of my heart!

Dr. Keung Lai Luke passed away peacefully on July 31, 2021. He left behind a legacy of faith, love, and courage. He donated most of his life’s savings and estate money to scholarships and assistantships at CSULB and other institutions, to his beloved First Chinese Baptist Church, and to seminaries and Christian orphanages.