Photovoltaics Program Manager Tom Surek has called many places home during his life, but it took the events of September 11 to make Surek realize where he really belongs.
"After seeing the events of September 11 unfold, it hit home that I'm really more American than anything else," Surek said.
On July 12, Surek received his U.S. Certificate of Naturalization in a ceremony at the Denver Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Center, making the home he found in Colorado and at NREL official.
Born in Hungary, Surek was just a toddler when he and his two sisters were placed in a Red Cross camp run by Hungarian Nazis. After the war, the Surek family struggled to survive under Communism, until they managed to emigrate to Canada after the Hungarian revolution in 1956.
"We knew if we stayed in Hungary we would have no future, so we escaped," Surek said.
As a Hungarian refugee, Surek was officially termed "stateless" and had to wait five years before he could become a Canadian citizen. Three years after becoming a Canadian citizen, Surek received a bachelor's degree in engineering from McGill University in Montreal.
Surek then made his way to the U.S. and earned his master's degree and doctorate at Stanford University. His work in solar energy began in 1973 while Surek was a researcher at Harvard University.
"During this time, I went from being in the U.S. on a research visa to becoming a permanent resident," Surek said. "So essentially, I've been in the U.S. on a green card since 1975."
In 1978, Surek moved to Colorado to begin work at NREL, then known as the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), in the photovoltaics program. At SERI, Surek found a home but found himself too busy to formally become a U.S. citizen.
"I could have applied for citizenship in 1980 but I never found the time," Surek said. "I was at work seven days a week, just ask my kids, they grew up here."
Surek, a divorced father of four daughters and one son, often brought his children to the Lab on the weekends where they would entertain themselves while he worked or played soccer for the team he formed, the Suns of SERI.
"He has always been very dedicated," said daughter Liz Surek. "We were with him every other weekend and we spent most Sundays at the Lab playing in the park, feeding the ducks and having picnics outside."
Family trips were often spent in Surek's 1981 Toyota Tercel, driving from one work-related event to another.
"We never had a real vacation," said daughter Shoshana Surek. "Each summer we drove across the country to a PV or crystal growth conference. "
Surek recently celebrated his 24th year with the Lab and has passed along his love of NREL to other members of his family: Liz Surek has worked in the Procurement Department for 11 years; Shoshana Surek is a full-time employee in Buildings and Thermal Systems; Shoshana's boyfriend Ray Hansen works in the Biofuels program; and daughter Debbie recently married former NREL employee Greg Besaw.
Surek's family, including children Shoshana, Liz and Joseph, fiancÚ Lise Pruitt and grandchildren Lisa Surek and Jordan Hansen, were with him on July 12 when he took the Oath of Allegiance.
"My family and I have found a home and this is it," Surek said, "I have been representing the U.S. photovoltaics program for nearly 25 years and have been talking about 'our' accomplishments and 'our' issues. On September 11, it finally occurred to me that the 'us and we' I have been talking about all these years really included 'me and myself' as well."
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