Memorial Minute for Stan Wetheimer
by Bridget Baird, 2016
When I was a young faculty member I would listen to these Memorial Minutes and think, "oh, this is nice- I'm learning something about the College and hearing about these interesting people" but it was rather removed from my life. Then of course slowly I began to know some of the people mentioned and eventually I knew all of them! It's getting a lot closer now, so I say to you all, especially the young faculty: may you have a long and rewarding career here at the College and, far into the future, be the subject of one of these.
These memorial minutes typically begin with a catalog of dates, and I will get to an abbreviated version of that, but first a disclaimer: I thought this guy was absolutely terrific: a wonderful colleague, mentor, collaborator, and friend. And I hope I can infuse these remarks with some of the joy, exuberance, range of interests and passions, and generosity that was Stan Wertheimer.
Stan's path to Connecticut College reflected Stan's personality: curious, unconventional, driven by intellectual curiosity, and it demonstrated quite a bit of his proclivity for the liberal arts. He was Brooklyn born and bred; when he finished high school he attended RPI, majoring in chemical engineering and minoring in nuclear engineering. He started work at a company as a nuclear engineer but found he needed more mathematics and so he went to Georgia Tech for a degree in applied mathematics (and taught there). Following that he took a job at Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut, where he was a mathematical analyst. There he found that he really wanted even more mathematics and so he started at Harvard in a program in applied mathematics. He ran out of money and so took some teaching jobs in private high schools (one of them in Switzerland for a year). He then worked for General Foods in engineering, statistics and mathematics (getting closer!) before deciding that he really wanted to be an academic in mathematics. So for the next few years (with a one-year interlude as a NASA Trainee) he pursued a doctorate in mathematics from Georgia Tech, while also teaching as an instructor there and starting a family. During his last year he was also an assistant professor at Georgia Tech as he finished his thesis. In 1972 he came to Connecticut College.
Stan really was an ideal professor for a liberal arts college. As just one example, I came across a syllabus for a course he taught in 1973, titled Mathematical Models Seminar. It included about a dozen speakers: Zoology (eel migration), Classics (mathematical models in philosophical thought), psychology, economics, physics, botany (on dynamics in the arboretum), a speaker from Pfizer (pharmaco-kinetics), one from the Coast Guard (models for environmental heat balance) and of course mathematics. He had such a curious mind and such an inclusive spirit. When I first arrived at the College, almost 10 years later, he was part of a faculty seminar in Artificial Intelligence, which of course he invited me to join. Those efforts also led to courses in AI and eventually a program in cognitive science. He also invited me to join work he was doing on AI and natural language processing for a grant from Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Other grants and workshops he participated in were from Mellon, Sloan, NEH and NSF.
Stan was a wonderful mentor to me. And he filled that role with unfailing patience. I always sought his advice and it was ever thoughtful, thought-provoking and filled with common sense. I had a million questions for him and we had countless discussions. Many of those discussions were about teaching. Stan was a wonderful teacher who was never afraid to take risks in the classroom. But his focus was always on the students: on what they were learning, on how they were learning, and on them as people. Before there were even terms to describe it, Stan was a proponent of students taking huge responsibility for their own learning. I remember discussing with him his idea to teach an entire calculus class by having the students build solar ovens; he often practiced the "Moore" method of teaching, where students prove theorems themselves; he used journals. He started courses in mathematics and the arts. And he did not like to spend a large amount of time lecturing; he knew that the less you lecture the more you prepare; and Stan prepared his classes more than anyone I have ever known. He saw the beauty and presence of mathematics all around and it was his joy to pass that on.
In addition to all this mathematics, Stan had an interest in computer science. In fact, at Connecticut College, for quite some time, Stan was computer science: teaching, support, everything. We're talking the early 70s! When he arrived there had been one computer science course taught here by an adjunct. He took over that course (it used FORTRAN by the way), he added more courses, he started Academic Computing and eventually was its director. There was administrative resistance but he was persistent. He advocated for computer services in Palmer Library and a director who would coordinate curricular planning, faculty use, software updating, library acquisitions, campus projects, and be an off-campus liaison. Stan ended up doing all of that himself, as well as continuing to teach courses in both mathematics and computer science, doing research, chairing the department, etc. etc. And by the way, I came across a letter from President Shain, where they agreed that being the Director of Academic Computing would count for 1/6 of his teaching load. I came across another delightful note from a former Treasurer, written in 1974. Stan had proposed having the College purchase a keypunch machine (remember that this is the time of keypunch cards) to help the library be more efficient and then to have summer students write the software to operate it. The Treasurer of the College turned down the request and said "I also have serious doubts about the need for more computerization than we now have ..." In Stan's computer courses he addressed issues such as algorithms, simulation, artificial intelligence, privacy and computer abuse. And all of this time he continued to teach mathematics courses.
I mentioned before that Stan was a wonderful mentor, colleague and friend. Collaboration was always a delight. And when we were working on the Oak Ridge grant together, he was most accommodating when I had to interrupt our research to give birth to my younger child (he also appeared at the hospital with a hot fudge sundae). Stan was extremely supportive of me, both through pregnancies and afterwards. Remember that these were the days of no maternity leave.
Stan's life had so many facets. His interests ranged from pottery (he fostered our weekly departmental teas and made mugs for all the graduating seniors and faculty) to gardening to music to art to Morris dancing. He came down with Parkinson's disease in the 90s and, in typical Stan fashion, he confronted it both intellectually and emotionally. He participated in research about the disease, he started an education and support group, he and I started a web site, he led dance workshops for people with the disease. And after he retired in 2001, while coping with numerous health issues, he continued to pursue his many interests. He never stopped caring about things intellectual nor about people and relationships. I remember many visits in Mystic, with him and Gunilla, where we would discuss a wide range of topics: philosophy, mortality, religion, computing, astrophysics, mathematics, spirituality. In fact, even a few months ago, when he was in the nursing facility and very debilitated, we had a good discussion about mathematics. In his various roles as colleague, partner, father, grandfather, teacher and friend he showed courage, humor, joy, perception and generosity. We will miss him.