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MAA: Math Horizons --- Murray Klamkin Memorial

Memorial Celebration of the Life of
Murray Seymour Klamkin

by Andy Liu


(1921—2004) 

 

     Let me first make it clear that this is not a eulogy. By my definition, a eulogy is an attempt to make the life of the departed sound much better than it was. In the present case, it is not only unnecessary, it is actually impossible. Murray Seymour Klamkin had a most productive and fulfilling life, divided between industry and academia.

 

Of the early part of his life, I knew little except that he was born in 1921 in Brooklyn, New York, where his father owned a bakery. This apparently induced in him his life-long fondness for bread. I read in his curriculum vita that his undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering was obtained in 1942 from Cooper Union’s School of Engineering. During the war, he was attached to a chemical warfare unit stationed in Maryland, as his younger sister Mrs. Judith Horn informed me.

 

In 1947, Murray obtained a Master of Science degree from the Polytechnic Institute of New York, and taught there until 1957 when he joined AVCO’s Research and Advanced Development Division.

 

In 1962, Murray returned briefly to academia as a professor at SUNY, Buffalo, and then became a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota. In 1965, he felt again the lure of industry and joined Ford Motor Company as the Principal Research Scientist, staying there until 1976.

 

During all this time, Murray had been extremely active in the field of mathematics problem solving. His main contribution was serving as the editor of the problem section of SIAM Review. He had a close working relation with the Mathematical Association of America, partly arising from his involvement with the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition.

 

In 1972, the MAA started the USA Mathematical Olympiad, paving the way for the country’s entry into the International Mathematical Olympiad in 1974, hosted by what was still East Germany.

 

Murray was unable to obtain from Ford release time to coach the team. Disappointed, he began to look elsewhere for an alternative career. This was what brought him to Canada, at first as a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Waterloo.

 

However, it was not until the offer came from the University of Alberta that made up his mind to leave Ford. I did not know if Murray had been to Banff before, but he must have visited this tourist spot during the negotiation period, fell in love with the place and closed the deal.

 

As Chair, Murray brought with him a management style from the private sector. Apparently not everyone was happy with that, but he did light some fires under several pairs of pants, and rekindled the research programs of the wearers.

 

Murray had always been interested in Euclidean Geometry. He often told me about his high school years when he and a friend would challenge each other to perform various Euclidean constructions. Although the Chair had no teaching duties at the time, Murray took on a geometry class himself.

 

At the same time, Murray began editing the Olympiad Corner in Crux Mathematicorum, a magazine then published privately by Professor Leo Sauve of Ottawa. It is now an official journal of the Canadian Mathematical Society. Murray also introduced the Freshmen and Undergraduate Mathematics Competitions in the Department.

 

Geometry, mathematics competitions and Crux Mathematicorum were what brought me to Murray’s attention. At the time, I was a post-doctoral fellow seeking employment, having just graduated from his Department. Thus I was ready to do anything, and it happened that my interests coincided with those of Murray. I was holding office hours for his geometry class, helping to run the Department’s competitions and assisting him in his editorial duty.

 

I remember being called into his office one day. He had just received a problem proposal for Crux Mathematicorum. “Here is a nice problem,” he said, “but the proposer’s solution is crappy. Come up with a nice solution, and I need it by Friday afternoon!”

 

As much as I liked problem-solving, I was not sure that I could produce results by an industrial schedule. Nevertheless, I found that I did respond to challenges, and although I was not able to satisfy him every time, I managed to do much better than if I was left on my own, especially after I had got over the initial culture shock.

 

The late seventies were hard times for academics, with few openings in post-secondary institutions. I was short-listed for every position offered by the Department, but always came just short. Eventually, I went elsewhere for a year as sabbatical replacement. Murray came over to interview me for a new position, pushed my appointment through the Hiring Committee and brought me back in 1980.

 

Murray had been the Deputy Leader for the USA National Team in the IMO since 1975. In 1981, USA became the host of the event, held outside Europe for the first time. Sam Greitzer, the usual Leader, became the chief organizer. Murray took over as the Leader, and secured my appointment as his Deputy Leader.

 

I stayed in that position for four year, and in 1982, made my first trip to Europe because the IMO was in Budapest. This was followed by IMO 1983 in Paris, and IMO 1984 in Prague. I was overawed by the international assembly, but found that they in turn were overawed by Murray’s presence. He was arguably the most well-known mathematics problem-solver in the whole world.

 

We both retired from the IMO after 1984, even though I would later return to it. His term as Chair also expired in 1981. Thus our relationship became collegial and personal. He and his wife Irene had no children, but they were very fond of company. I found myself a guest at their place at regular interval, and they visited my humble abode a few times.

 

It was during this period that I saw a different side of Murray. Before, I found him very businesslike, his immense talent shining through his incisive insight and clinical efficiency.

 

Now I found him a warm person with many diverse interest, including classical music, ballroom dancing, adventure novels, kung-fu movies and sports, in particular basketball.

 

Although Murray had been highly successful in everything he attempted, he will probably be remembered the most for his involvement in mathematics problem-solving and competitions. He had authored or edited four problem books, and had left his mark in every major journal which had a problem section. He had received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Waterloo and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Belgium. He had won numerous prizes, and had some named after him.

 

Murray had enjoyed remarkably good health during his long life. It began to deteriorate in September 2000 when he underwent a by-pass operation. After his release from the hospital, he continued to exert himself, walking up to his office on the sixth floor, and skating in the West Edmonton Mall.

 

His heart valve gave in November, fortunately while he was already in the hospital for physiotherapy. He was in coma for some time. One day, when I visited him, he was bleeding profusely from his aorta. The doctor indicated to me that he did not expect Murray to last through the day.

 

Somehow, the inner strength of Murray came through, and on my next visit, he was fully conscious. He told me to make arrangement for his eightieth birthday party, stating simply that he would be out of the hospital by that time. It was a good thing that I took his words seriously, for he was out of the hospital by that time, ready to celebrate.

 

One of the last mathematical commitment he made was to edit the problem section in the MAA’s new journal Math Horizons. During this difficult time, he asked me to serve with him as joint-editors. Later, he passed the column onto me, but his finger-prints were still all over the pages.

 

Now I have to try to fill in his shoes without the benefit of his wisdom. His passing marks the end of an era in the world of mathematics competition and problem-solving. He will be deeply missed.

Last updated 03 April 2006

 

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