By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 36th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)
Masoud Karkehabadi was an Orange Coast College student for just one semester, but during those four memorable months he became one of the most celebrated students ever to trod Coast’s lovely acres.
Studious, but definitely not an introvert, he enrolled as an OCC sophomore pre-med major in January of 1992.
Like most college sophomores, he loved spending time with friends. He also enjoyed dancing at social get-togethers; boating and skiing with family members and friends; and giant pizza parties.
There was something different about Masoud that, frankly, distinguished him from his classmates, however. He carried a whopping 23 units during the spring semester of 1992. Most full-time students that fall were averaging 12 to 16 units. He’d had to secure special approval from OCC’s president, David Grant, to carry such a prodigious load.
But there was an additional factor that separated Karkehabadi from his Orange Coast College classmates. He was 10 years old!
Some in the media labeled the half-Iranian, half-Latino, all-American boy a “real-life Doogie Howser.”
During his solo semester at the college – the spring of ’92 – Masoud completed 23 units. He graduated on May 28 with a 3.7 grade point average…at the age of 10.
Masoud's story began receiving national and international coverage shortly after he enrolled at OCC. It was first carried in Orange County newspapers, then was picked up by the wire services and went around the world. The story of the Orange Coast College “wunderkind” appeared in publications throughout the United States as well as in Japan, Germany, England, Italy and Iran.
It was also carried by dozens of NBC affiliates across the nation, and on Italian and Iranian television. While an OCC student, Masoud appeared on 23 Los Angeles-area newscasts, more than a dozen radio broadcasts nationwide (as well as on BBC), and on two nationally syndicated television programs, "Scratch" and "In America." He received a call from the “Arsenio Hall Show” the day following his OCC graduation, and he appeared on “48 Hours” with Dan Rather shortly thereafter.
One national reporter, John Gibson, who was the West Coast correspondent for NBC, spent a week camped out in my office doing a profile on Masoud. Fortunately, Gibson was a nice guy and I enjoyed putting him up for five days. We also had lots of chats about topics other than Masoud. At one point though, John asked me off the record, “Come on, Jim, is this kid for real?” The story didn’t end up “making” Gibson’s career, but neither did it impede his media ascendancy. Gibson today hosts “The Big Story With John Gibson,” Monday through Friday evenings on Fox News.
Masoud had no difficulty maintaining his 10-year-old cool when Channel 9 News of Los Angeles set a trap for him during a “live” in-studio interview by having a medical professor quiz him. Question: ''Where is the proximal humerus?'' Reply: ''The upper arm.'' With that, and several other responses, Masoud aced the exam.
Another big-name media-type, Deborah Norville, came to campus in 1992 and interviewed Masoud and president Dave Grant. Norville was a former co-host of the Today Show, and has since anchored Inside Edition for the past decade.
Masoud had OCC’s campus all stirred up. Students seeing him in the quad or Student Center were curious about him. Students in his classes were amazed by his academic performance.
The son of a former Iranian fighter pilot – who served while the shah was in power – Masoud became one of the more celebrated students in Orange Coast history. He boasted an IQ in excess of 200. Though an imprecise method for measuring intelligence, the test places anyone with an IQ of 180 and above in the "genius" category.
Masoud never attended elementary or high school. With the permission of local school officials, the Karkehabadis hired tutors who taught their son at home. His first exposure to public education took place when he enrolled in college.
Masoud and his father, Mahmoud
Born in this country in 1981, the Masoud of OCC fame spoke English and Spanish fluently, plus a smattering of Persian. At the time that he joined us at Coast, he was living in Laguna Hills with his father, Mahmoud (called "Mike" by friends), his mother, Alejandra, his six-year-old brother, Ahmad, and his governess. For convenience, during his semester at OCC he and his governess took an apartment close to the campus where they’d spend weekday evenings.
Though Masoud began talking in complete sentences at the age of 12 months, Mike told me that he first detected a "real difference" in his son when he was just 18 months old.
"We noticed that he really loved to watch MTV," Mike said in a 1991 interview. At the time, Masoud’s father was working as a loan broker for an Orange County auto dealership. "He learned the lyrics of every 'Top 40' song. We'd turn off the TV and then he'd turn on. At a year-and-a-half, he could sing every song for us...verbatim."
Mike began to teach his son the alphabet, and Masoud responded by writing simple sentences.
When Masoud was two, Mike purchased a sophisticated stereo system.
"I think it took me a month or so to learn how to operate it," he told me with a laugh. "Then I showed Masoud one evening. By the next morning, he knew exactly what to do to make the music play."
Masoud was born into a family of professionals. His father possessed a B.S. degree in general science from an Iranian university. Five of Mike's cousins were medical doctors. Other relatives – both in the U.S. and Iran – were physicians, engineers and computer professionals.
But, despite the impressive pedigree, Mike didn't anticipate that his first-born would turn out to be a Mozart-type prodigy.
"His level of intelligence is so exceptional that it scared me at first," Mike told me. "I wanted to help him nurture that great gift, but I also wanted to protect him from any exploitation."
Mike spent $8,000 on a computer for Masoud when he was two.
"I'm not computer literate," Mike told me, "so I hired a teacher to work with him. Once he learned to operate the computer, there was no stopping him. He flourished."
At four, Masoud could read a newspaper and remember all that he’d read.
"His mind is extremely quick," Mike said. "He speaks very rapidly, and he thinks just like he speaks. We always have to slow him down. He reads quickly, too. He can read an entire book in the length of time it takes me to read a single chapter."
When Masoud was six, Mike's sister, a nurse, was taking a course of study that moved her into the field of obstetrics. Not a native English language speaker, she was having difficulty understanding her textbook. Masoud gave her a hand.
"He read the book, then taught her one chapter at a time," Mike said. "He got her through the course."
When he was seven, Masoud attempted to take the GED (equivalency) exam. He wasn't allowed to officially take the test because he didn't meet requirements. He had to either be 18 years of age or a military veteran.
"We managed to get a copy of the test, however, and he took it anyway," Mike said. "He achieved a perfect score."
At seven, Mike felt that his son was ready for college, but he was hesitant to expose him to a campus environment at such an early age.
"I decided to put it off," he said, "but Masoud began to bug me about it. He wanted to go to college badly. When he turned nine, I finally gave in."
Mike enrolled Masoud at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. The family was living in Ontario at the time.
"I'll never forget the day that he visited campus to take the one-hour math placement test with other students," Mike said. "After 15 minutes, he came running out of the room waving his paper and shouting, 'Daddy, I won. I finished first.'
"I was upset. I said, 'Masoud what are you doing? Go back and finish the test.' I didn't realize he had already finished it. To him, it was a game. He thought he’d win by finishing the test ahead of the other students."
Masoud scored so well that he qualified for intermediate algebra.
"I didn't want to push him, however. I told the counselor to put him in pre-algebra instead. I also wanted to limit him to a total of 15 academic units, though Masoud wanted to take more. I bullied him a bit to get my way."
That was a mistake. Masoud had no trouble keeping up in class, and soon grew restless. After three weeks as a college student, Mike had second thoughts and decided to pull him out.
"I admit to frequently being over-protective. The students and teachers didn't seem to take to him very well at first. There was resistance. In his enthusiasm, he was often too quick to answer questions in class. Some students thought he was trying to show them up. I didn't want him to get hurt."
But Masoud responded by begging his father to let him remain.
"Daddy don't take me out," he pleaded. "I'll make them all like me and be my best friends."
Win them over he did. By the end of the semester, Masoud was a campus celebrity. In his spare time he was tutoring 25 other students.
Masoud completed eight units in the summer of 1991, and 19 in the fall. The family moved to Laguna Hills, and he enrolled at OCC in the spring of 1992.
Orange Coast College’s dean of Admissions and Records, Sue Brown, tipped me off about our new “Doogie Howser” right after the winter break. I interviewed Masoud and his father a couple of weeks before spring classes were to begin.
"I heard many good things about Orange Coast," his father said. "We visited the campus and were impressed. We decided to enroll."
During Masoud's one semester at Coast, he enrolled in 23 units. His classes included U.S. history, general chemistry, trigonometry, anatomy, English composition and anthropology.
"This campus is great," Masoud told me politely a week after spring classes began. "It's very friendly. The instructors here are very professional.”
I was amazed to hear a 10-year-old make an observation like that.
"I'm impressed with the Science Department. They've got real cadavers here. I'm looking forward to dissecting them and doing research."
Masoud graduated from OCC in May of 1992, then transferred to UC Irvine. In June of 1994 – at the age of 13 – he became the youngest person ever to graduate from the university.
"He's very goal-oriented, he knows exactly what he wants to do with his life," his father told me in 1992. "He's very interested in medicine. When he was small – four or five – his favorite toy was a small doctor's kit. He was forever sticking things in my mouth and ears."
"I want to explore the brain," Masoud said, "it's the least known organ in the body. I want to find a cure for brain tumors, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson’s. I also want to do skin grafts on burn victims.
"I want to use my brain to the best of its capacity and give back to society."
As a 10-year-old OCC student, what did Masoud think of his colossal intelligence?
"It is a gift from God," he said modestly. Masoud and his family were practicing Muslims. As an OCC student he said his prayers daily, and read from the Koran.
"He's blessed with a gift – there's no question about it – but he's a kid no matter what," his father told me. "He's very 'kiddish' at times and needs supervision. That's why his governess accompanies him to school and to every class."
The governess sat in on classes while Masoud listened and took notes. The gifted youngster possessed a photographic memory with a remarkable capacity for retention.
"He does something that's very hard to believe," Mike told me in 1992 with a laugh. "Like most kids, he loves cartoons and kids' shows. Well, he can record them in his brain and play them back whenever he wishes.
"Sometimes I'll catch him sitting at the table playing back one of those cartoons in his head. He's supposed to be reading a book, but he'll be dying from laughter as he runs the film in his head."
Masoud fell in love with the Walt Disney cartoon, "Peter Pan." After just a couple of viewings, he could repeat the one-hour and 16-minute cartoon verbatim, with all the dialogue and sound effects.
"He presented the whole thing to us," Mike said, "complete with character voices."
Masoud was invited to an 11-year-old friend's Christmas party in 1991. He talked to her on the phone the morning of the party and discovered that the highlight of the social event would be a dance contest.
"Masoud hates to dance," his father said. "I asked him, 'Masoud, what are you going to do?' 'I'll figure it out,' he replied. He always keeps you guessing. He loves to surprise people. Masoud is very competitive and he likes to win."
Masoud wasn't about to turn in a mediocre performance. What he came up with surprised his friends.
"He did dance moves I'd never seen before,” Mike said. “Everyone was amazed. His friends were saying, 'Hey! Masoud really knows how to dance.' He earned second place.
"I asked him how he did it. He told me he worked the moves out in his head before the party. He just replayed the tape and allowed his body to follow the choreography. His retention was amazing.”
"When I read a book, I memorize it," Masoud confided. "You can take the book away from me when I'm done and I'll be able to answer any question about it. The answers come almost automatically."
In 1992, Mike told me that he was convinced that Masoud was like most kids his age. He loved to play with Ninja Turtles and space ships. He also enjoyed frequent trips to Chuck E Cheese's Pizza.
"One minute he can be carrying on an adult conversation about politics, history or science, and the next he's playing with an eight-year-old in the dirt, enjoying himself."
While a student at Mt. San Antonio, Masoud and several other chemistry students visited a local elementary school to present experiments they’d created that semester.
Masoud actually presented three different experiments, all of which were later described in a national college chemistry publication.
"The elementary kids were very impressed with Masoud's experiments," Mike said. "After the presentation was over, he went out and played with them on the playground."
Masoud told me that he enjoyed spending lots of time with his doting father.
"My father and I go deep sea fishing on our boat," he said. "I love to navigate. Give me a compass and I can direct us anywhere. We also go hunting and skiing."
Masoud loved to read while an OCC student, and had an entire set of dog-eared Funk & Wagnall’s encyclopedias that he reviewed from cover to cover. He also never tired of reading his college texts.
But, as a 10-year-old, his favorite activity was attending college classes. He had a voracious appetite for knowledge.
"I love to go to school," he told me. "I like to learn new things."
"With most kids, when you want to get their attention you threaten to pull the plug on the television or the telephone," Mike said. "With Masoud, I just tell him that I won't let him go to school. That gets his immediate attention."
At the time that I knew the family, what Mike most appreciated about Masoud was the fact that he was his son.
"Masoud is a very warm and sensitive person. He has a heart of gold and loves to help people. I feel privileged to have him as my son."
Just prior to OCC’s spring 1992 commencement ceremony, Mike expressed to me his gratitude for the way the college accepted his son and moved him to the “next level” academically.
"The teachers, administrators, staff members and students at Orange Coast College have all been great to Masoud. They've made his stay here a very enjoyable one. He's made many, many friends."
One of Masoud's best friends was OCC president, David A. Grant. Masoud made an effort to stop by Grant's office at least twice a week.
"I enjoy talking with him," Masoud told me. "The first thing he always asks is, 'What's the latest thing you've learned in class?' I fill him in on all the details."
On May 28, 1992, Masoud participated in OCC’s 44th commencement ceremony, held in LeBard Stadium on campus. A total of 1,873 students were honored during the ceremony. OCC presented 1,257 associate in arts degrees and 616 certificates.
Members of the media were on hand in full force to document the occasion.
For Masoud, it was his first graduation ever. Barely four-feet tall, he walked across the staged and picked up his A.A. degree from President Grant. The crowd went wild.
Following the ceremony, Masoud posed for pictures with his classmates and with his new high-powered water pistol and Ninja Turtles wallet (graduation presents). Later that evening, his father made good on a promise to purchase an iguana (called "Iggy") from a local pet store.
"I knew I'd be excited for graduation, but I never thought I'd be this excited," Masoud told me during the reception following the ceremony. One had only to look at his face to see how thrilled he was.
The following fall he enrolled as a biological sciences major and Regent’s Scholar at UCI, and graduated two years later.
I’ve since lost touch with Masoud Karkehabadi, but I’ve thought about him often over the years. Today, he’d be 24. As of a couple of years ago, I understand he was employed at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
I expect to see big things from him in the future, and wish him all the best. I hope he fulfills his destiny…and discovers a cure for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s!
To view video clips of Masoud as an OCC student click here (Quicktime required).