Alton Smith Wallace was born in 1944 in New Bern, North Carolina, a town of about 20,000 people in eastern North Carolina. The town was the colonial state capitol before the capitol moved to Raleigh. His parents, Arthur Smith Wallace and Addie Mae Wallace, were tobacco farmers and were among a small group of African Americans who owned large farms in the particular region of the state where they lived. His father was also a Baptist minister.
Education was always important within the Wallace household, but he does not remember his parents "pushing" him or his siblings (two sisters and one brother) as many parents do today. The children studied and did well in school because it seemed the natural thing to do. Though the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school integration was passed while he was in 4th grade, his early Education continued in segregated schools. Wallace attended the segregated West Street Elementary School and graduated as Salutatorian of his high school class at J.T. Barber High School in New Bern.
One of his high school memories that shaped his attitude about life relates to taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) at the all-white New Bern High. Like many children brought up in the 1950's, his images of white America had been shaped by "Ozzie and Harriet" type television shows where the world seemed perfect and the kids (i.e., white kids) could do no wrong. So, on his first trip to New Bern High to take the SAT (it was not offered at his school), Wallace expected an "Ozzie and Harriet" environment. When he went in to take his seat, he noticed that the desks in the classroom were marked up and carved up with graffiti just like the ones at his high school. Moreover, when he went to the bathroom, there he noted even more graffiti. The graffiti and the general behavior of the students led him to conclude, "... they are no different than us ..." That conclusion has followed him throughout the remainder of his life.
Wallace always liked science and was as comfortable with chemistry or physics as he was with math. His sister, Carothene Wallace-Crump, was a math Education major at North Carolina A&T State University and when the time came to select a college major, she suggested he study "Engineering Mathematics." This was a new major at NC A&T tied to the new emphasis on engineering and the "Space Race" with the Soviet Union. In the fall on 1962, he entered NCA&T as an Engineering Math major on a partial scholarship from the Alumni Association.
He also took courses in military science as a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet, in preparation for a commission as an Army Officer. This was in the midst of the Viet Nam war and Wallace soon grew tired of attending Purple Heart ceremonies on campus. At these ceremonies, a Purple Heart Medal would be presented posthumously to the mother of a former cadet who had recently been killed in battle. While at one of these ceremonies, he decided to go to graduate school in the hope that the war would be over by the time he finished his studies and was required to enter active duty. After discussing his situation with the Chairman of the Math Department (Dr. Theodore R. Sykes), Wallace selected Pennsylvania State University for graduate studies. Dr. Sykes had attended Penn State and thought it well suited for his student's interests. Dr. Sykes also had another math student -- Patricia LaVerne Mobley, who graded papers in his office -- that he felt might also be suited for Wallace's interests. He introduced them and they were married three years later.
At Penn State (1966), Wallace continued to study the applied/engineering math courses. However, he noted that he was careless in his calculations and grew tired of having to keep track of all the "+" and "-" signs you must when doing "real" math. He switched to the more abstract areas of Real Analysis and found it more to his liking.
After finishing an MS at Penn State in 1968, it was time to face up to the military commitment he had deferred. He entered the Army as an officer in the Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for building roads, bridges, airfields, and maneuver obstacles. His first year was spent in Washington, DC in research and development, but by his second year of service, there was a shortage of engineering officers in Viet Nam. So he was sent there for a year, essentially nullifying the Penn State ruse. While there he quickly realized that he was not cut out for the military and began applying to graduate schools again.
He selected the University of Maryland because it was near his home in Washington, DC and entered in the fall of 1970. At that time, there were very few minority students there and only one African American math professor whom Wallace did not know. During his second year there, he took a Special Topics course in math that this professor (Dr. Raymond L. Johnson) was also auditing. They became friends and began discussing common math interests. Dr. Johnson suggested that Wallace do research under him on a problem bridging the gap between the "real" math that Dr. Johnson was studying and the "abstract" math that Wallace had grown to love. Wallace agreed to do so and received his Ph.D from the University in 1974. In so doing, it is believed that he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in math studying under another African American.
Wallace's professional life has been spent in the Washington, DC area working in the defense industry. He was employed with System Planning Corporation (SPC) in Rosslyn, VA for about 20 years, rising to become a Division Director. SPC conducts studies and analyses for the Department of Defense (DOD) on a variety of issues ranging from defense policy, to testing, to developing cost estimates for weapons systems. In 1995, he moved to the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a non-profit DOD "think-tank" that also conducts studies and analyses on defense issues. At IDA, most of his work is related to operational tests of weapons. In these tests, the performance of a weapon system (e.g., an airplane) is examined when placed in the hands of typical soldiers and sailors who will actually use the system.
He continues to have a strong interest in recruiting minorities for IDA, and for keeping the mathematics pipeline better filled with minority students nationwide through internships and mentoring at local universities and high schools.