Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus James “Jim” Reid passed away on Sunday, Oct. 27 at the age of 83. An algebraist, Reid taught at the University for 44 years.
Reid taught classes ranging from introductory-level courses for non-mathematics majors to upper-level calculus and algebra courses. Although he retired in 2001 at the age of 70, he continued to teach one to two courses each spring. Reid taught as recently as last semester, and he had intended to teach in the spring of 2014.
“He came back every year, just like Old Faithful,” said Chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department Wai Kiu Chan.
As an undergraduate, Reid attended Fordham University. After graduating, he served in the navy before attending graduate school at the University of Washington. It was at the University of Washington that Reid met Edward Burr Van Vleck Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus Wistar Comfort. Reid and Comfort later worked together at Wesleyan.
“[Reid] was a gentleman,” Comfort said. “He never lost his cool, no matter how silly somebody was. I don’t care if it was a student or a faculty member.”
In an address delivered at Reid’s service, Comfort admired his colleague’s unique way of understanding math. Comfort shared that address with The Argus.
“I would be talking to Jim informally and say something like ‘Well, I gotta go, I’ve got to go over my notes for tomorrow’s calculus lecture; it’s the Mean Value Theorem,’” Comfort wrote. “And he would say, ‘Yeah, that’s good stuff. And did you know that [such and such],’ and proceed to outline a completely new slant on the theorem, its proof and its meaning. Friends, that’s impossible. The Mean Value Theorem has been around since before the time of Cauchy in the early 19th century, it’s been taught literally hundreds of thousands of times in universities around the world.”
Reid’s fresh take on mathematics impressed Comfort.
“Where the rest of us take the easy route, and our classroom preparation on routine basic matters like Freshman Calculus consists of checking what other good expositors have done, Jim takes and finds time to seek a fresh perspective, to use his imagination to seek out newer, better approaches,” he wrote.
Throughout his career, Reid supervised 14 PhD students.
“Getting a PhD student is like raising a kid,” Chan said. “The student comes in like a piece of blank paper, knowing nothing, and then you personally train the student to become a PhD…. It’s difficult, and you need to be responsible.”
According to Chan, supervising 14 PhD students is an impressive accomplishment.
“I’ve been here 15 years, and I’ve only had four,” Chan said. “Even if you double that, in 30 years I’ll still only have eight. I think he had the most [PhD students], and he never bragged about that.”
Chan commented that this modesty was not unusual for Reid.
“He’s not the kind of person who imposed his ideas of teaching or imposed his ideas of what to do,” Chan said. “[Although] he knows everything, he’s a very modest person.”
Edward Burr Van Vleck Professor of Mathematics, Emerita Carol Wood was hired by the department in 1973, four years after Reid. She, along with other members of the mathematics faculty, remembers Reid for his humility.
“He wouldn’t tell you a lot of things about him,” Wood said. “At some point, I learned that he had been a runner in high school, but he’s not going around, saying, ‘I was a runner in high school.’”
According to an obituary posted on dignitymemorial.com, Reid described himself as, “a devoted husband, a loving father, and an all-around good guy.” Wood agreed with these sentiments.
“You meet him, and you know right away, this is one of the good guys,” she said.
Wood observed that Reid’s positive reputation was felt by all.
“I saw in particular that women and minorities did not feel somehow marginalized by him at all,” Wood said. “When he was at Syracuse [in the 1960s], he had two African [-American] women PhD Students. I think they were the number seven and number eight African-American PhDs in mathematics in the country. They spoke of him in the warmest terms.”
Wood credits Reid’s reputation in part to his gentle style of teaching.
“There are different styles,” she explained. “There are some people who can sort of bully you into learning. He was the opposite. He was the anti-bully. He was just an ‘aw, shucks’ kind of gentle guy.”
Many former students of Reid agree with this sentiment, including Rene Ventura ’10, who was taught by Reid as a freshman.
“Professor Reid was a very laid-back teacher,” said Ventura. “He’ll teach you all he has to teach you, but it was never about grades. I was struggling a lot with integrals. I went to his office hours every week, and I finally got it. That’s why I became a math major.”
Other students also fondly remember their time with Reid.
“It was really clear that he cared a lot about his subject and his students,” said Jed Siebert ’16. “He was very passionate.”
Siebert took Reid’s “MATH 111: Introduction to Mathematical Thought: From the Discrete to the Continuous” in the spring of 2013. Anthony Muraco ’16 also took the class.
“He definitely made it enjoyable for everyone, especially for people who weren’t necessarily going to be math majors,” he said. “He was pretty good at integrating math into real life.”
Jules Lighter ’16, who also took MATH111 the same semester, felt similarly about Reid’s teaching style. Lighter is a film and College of Letters major.
“He was a teacher that got me open to the idea of studying math,” she said. “He was so accommodating and approachable that he made it so that the course would be interesting for every student in it, regardless of the fact that it may not be pertinent to either of my majors.”
Muraco described one particular lesson of Reid’s on the pigeonhole principal. He recalled that Reid’s enthusiasm and lightheartedness was contagious.
“He was laughing about [the lesson] the entire time,” Muraco recalled. “I just remember sitting in the back of the room laughing with him because he was having so much fun with something that isn’t necessarily a hard principle. We all knew that, but he was making something that was so dry into such an interesting experience.”
Muraco explained that he frequently visited Reid during office hours to chat about everything from math, to sports, to women.
“He’s one of the first professors I’ve ever gotten to know on a personal level,” he said. “Especially at that age, he was so knowledgeable. It was nice to have a different perspective on life and be able to sit down in office hours and talk about everything that’s going on, which is something that you don’t really experience with most professors…. It’s not very often that you come across such a genuine human being that just really wanted to know how you were doing because he wanted to know, not just because it was his job to ask.”
Professor of Mathematics at New Mexico State University Bruce Olberding received his PhD from Wesleyan under Reid’s tutelage in 1996.
“I specifically went to Wesleyan to work with Jim Reid,” Olberding explained. “…His door was always open. He would always listen to whatever crazy ideas we had for our thesis projects.”
Olberding admired Reid’s style of teaching.
“Since I ended up going into academia, he’s my model for how to be a professor at a university, too,” he said. “He liked teaching. He liked research. He was just genuinely easy to get along with. Very modest. Just a very good example.”
Chan also learned from Reid’s example.
“He basically taught me everything: how to behave, how to work here, how to deal with the administration,” Chan said.
At the time Chan was hired, he was the only number theorist among mathematics faculty at the University. In 2001, Reid retired in order to allow the department to hire another number theorist.
“Even though Jim’s an algebraist…he felt I needed another number theorist to talk number theory together, so eventually he agreed to retire so that we could have another number theorist,” he said. “I don’t think [retiring] had ever occurred to him before that, because he liked to teach…but I think he thought it was for the good of the department.”
Currently, there are three number theorists in the department.
“I think that was because of him,” Chan said.
Chan also recalled Reid’s joking nature.
“I remember the rainy day I interviewed here,” Chan said. “I didn’t bring an umbrella. [Reid] had a guest at that time, so he couldn’t bring me to North College to see the [vice president for academic affairs]. But it was raining, so he said, ‘Why don’t you take my umbrella?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t need to because it’s just some light drizzling.’ And he said, ‘It’s not for the rain. It’s for you to poke the administration.’”
Many students who knew Reid remembered his jokes. Lighter recalled a joke Reid told when she visited his office hours.
“I was in a physics class at that time, and I was writing a paper about the twin paradox,” she said. “…He was like, ‘Well, that’s really funny, because I’m a twin, paradoxically enough.’”
Chan, and many others, lamented Reid’s passing.
“He is like a gentleman living in another era,” Chan said. “It seems like these nice, good-natured human beings keep on disappearing.”
Chan will remember his late co-worker fondly.
“He was just a kind soul,” he said.