Photo of Demetrius Kourtides, a man in his 80s, leaning against a wall with partially shown 1912 carved into the outside of the building. He's wearing a black suit jacket with a blue tartan tie.

Humans of the U: Demetrius Kourtides

“I was a research scientist at NASA for 33 years. My responsibility was mainly to improve the heat shield that protects the space shuttle when it re-enters the atmosphere. When I retired, my wife and I moved back to Salt Lake City. My wife has family here, and I had graduated from BYU. To be honest with you, I just don’t like to be retired. I love to travel because I like to see how people live, what their opinions are, what their values are. But besides traveling, I don’t like golf, I don’t go hunting, none of the stuff. I kind of got tired of sitting around the house, so I worked as a chemist in a lab at the U’s School of Medicine. But, I wanted to do something different.

In my travels, I’ve always liked to look at old buildings. I grew up in Greece during the Second World War, and we have a lot of old, beautiful buildings, a lot of history. When they have to update them, instead of renovating them, they tear them down to build a new hotel or something. I took a non-credit class in history of architecture, and that got me hooked on wanting to be able to preserve historic buildings.

Then a few years ago, there was a really bad fire in the resort town of Mati, Greece. It’s right next to the Mediterranean Sea, and it was full of tourists. People couldn’t read the street signs, there were dead-ends, and people couldn’t get out. It was mayhem. The roads were haphazardly planned, and it caused more than 100 to die. So that was a big factor for why I wanted to get into architecture and city planning. Maybe I could be able to help with some guidelines to at least prevent people from being stuck in a fire, especially in smaller towns.

Once I got involved in the program, I learned so much that I didn’t expect, and the people were just wonderful. The most surprising was a class with Professor Ivis Garcia in City & Metropolitan Planning. We walked around parts of West Salt Lake City at night, down North Temple, and examined the buildings, chatted with the people, and went to local community council meetings. It was an eye-opener. At first I thought, “What does it have to do with architecture or planning or anything? This is strictly social.” And it was social. I went to monthly community meetings in the Glendale neighborhood where people got up and said what they needed in their city, that their schools were not adequate and so forth. We did projects based on what we learned from the residents and displayed them to the community. My poster was about how to take the motels and change them into housing for the homeless and the chronology of the building on the West side of Salt Lake City. Other students had ones on how to improve the streets, neighborhoods and so forth. Mayor Mendenhall and lots of people came to see our displays, and we got to explain them to the public. Professor Garcia, she’s doing a great job to get you involved with all this stuff, because it’s not just a classroom—you go out there, and you see what’s going on. The internship program was also very valuable and gave students practical experience before graduation and connecting with possible employers.

The architecture and planning program is just excellent. I mean, the professors, the TAs, the students, everybody was just wonderful to me. Like I was having a rough time in one of the GIS software classes during COVID-19, and the professor would schedule a Zoom meeting with me on a Sunday to be able to help me out. You don’t see that often. I really felt at home. So much, that I am thankful that I was able to participate in the program and graduate.”

—Demetrius Kourtides, Class of 2021, B.S. in Urban Ecology, College of Architecture + Planning

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Lisa Potterresearch/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
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