By Julee Cobb
Described as a jovial, straight shooter that was fascinated by every part of an airplane, Charlie Sojka, director of maintenance in K-State Salina’s aviation department, was honored on Feb. 27 during a celebration of his life on campus. Dean Verna Fitzsimmons along with faculty members, students both former and current, friends and his family gathered in the university’s College Center conference room to share stories about his time at K-State Salina and his earlier years.
Sojka passed away on Nov. 30, 2014 after an aircraft accident while he was visiting family in Missouri. Sojka had been employed at K-State Salina for 11 years, first as an instructor in the aviation maintenance management program and then starting in 2013, as the director of maintenance. Outside of his responsibilities with the university, Sojka was a flight instructor and enjoyed restoring old airplanes.
The gathering began with a presentation of colors from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1432 Honor Guard since Sojka served in the U.S. Army for two years. Dean Fitzsimmons welcomed the guests and then Kurt Barnhart, associate dean of research and engagement, who was Sojka’s supervisor for seven years, spoke about his character and qualities as an educator.
“Charlie always led by example,” said Barnhart. “He wasn’t someone that just sat behind a desk and drank coffee; he was always inside the plane doing all the hard jobs. And he maintained high standards in his classroom. Although the students thought he was being tough at first, they always thanked him later for what they learned.”
One prime example of Sojka’s dedication to his students came when aviation maintenance management senior, Gunner Wiles, took to the podium to express his appreciation for Sojka teaching him how to fly.
“Every time I’m on an approach, I’ll think of him,” said Wiles. “Every time I’m alone up there flying, I’ll think of him. When you can share your passion, what you do, with other people, I don’t think there’s a greater honor in the world.”
All three of Sojka’s children addressed the crowd at the memorial, speaking about their favorite memories with their father. Sojka’s daughter, Candice Clark, reminisced about the time he flew her to K-State in Manhattan for a campus visit; Sojka’s son, Nick Sojka, said he never met anyone as smart as his dad when it came to aviation; and Jesse Sojka, Sojka’s other son, shared with the group how his father’s love of airplanes began.
“Dad grew up in Oklahoma on an airport and his father taught him how to fly,” said Jesse Sojka. “So it was a great source of pride for Dad to teach me to fly.”
Sojka earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts education with a teaching certification and a bachelor’s degree in business administration, both from Oklahoma State University. Before his employment with K-State Salina, Sojka worked as a high school teacher and an accountant.
Sojka was also honored from afar, as some that couldn’t attend the gathering sent in messages to be read during the memorial. Brian Aden, ’13, one of Sojka’s students both at K-State Salina in aviation maintenance and independently in flight instruction, said he owed Sojka a great deal.
“If it wasn’t for Charlie, I wouldn’t be a pilot,” Aden said.