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Remembering Henry L. Alder (1922-2002)

Remembering Henry L. Alder (1922-2002)


By G. L. Alexanderson


If one were asked, "Who would be best described as representing the MAA?", the name that would leap to mind is "Henry Alder." From 1956, when he was elected Chair of the Northern California Section, until his death, Henry was given one significant responsibility after another in the Section and at the national level. He performed these tasks splendidly, always conscientiously and carefully, with meticulous attention to detail, and showing wisdom, diplomacy, and tact. He truly believed in the importance of the work of the Association. Through his many years of tireless service and his inviting others into the profession through his collegiality and mentoring, Henry Alder personified the spirit of the MAA. Sadly for the MAA, his family, colleagues, and friends, Henry died of cancer on November 6, 2002, at the age of 80, at his home in Davis, California.

Between 1960 and 1975, he was the national Secretary of the MAA, and in recognition of that outstanding service, he was designated Secretary Emeritus, the only person in MAA history to be so honored. A few years later he was elected national President for 1977-78. In 1960 he had been approached by Carl Allendoerfer, then President of the MAA, about being nominated for Secretary. He asked what the principal responsibilities would be. Allendoerfer told him that it was largely the care and feeding of Presidents. Henry took that admonition seriously, but at the same time he realized that the Secretary has the potential for moving an organization along. The Secretary can hold the office for a significant period of time and provides the institutional memory of the organization. Presidents come and go, but the Secretary often stays on.

Secretary and President were only the most visible offices that Henry Alder held in the MAA. He served on innumerable MAA committees over the years, and when he was chair of a committee, things happened. He chaired the Committee on the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Awards for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics and is largely responsible for the successful implementation of that important program, funded through an endowment from another former MAA President, Deborah Tepper Haimo. He chaired the first committee on the Sliffe Awards and was largely responsible for the formulation of that program by which we reward teachers of the most successful teams participating in the American Mathematics Competitions. Other committees Henry chaired most effectively include the Gung-Hu Committee (the group that each year nominates the winner of the Distinguished Service Award), the Council on Awards, and the Committee on the 25-Year Member Banquet.

There is scarcely any aspect of MAA activities that has not been touched by Henry's sage counsel and good judgment. In 1980 he received the Association's most prestigious prize, the Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics. Earlier he had received the Lester R. Ford Award for Expository Writing for his beautiful article, "Partition Identities ? from Euler to the Present," that appeared in the American Mathematical Monthly in 1969. This work described a broad range of ideas in partition theory, and "Present" in the title included work from some of his own research papers in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society and the Pacific Journal of Mathematics. Certain generalizations of the Rogers-Ramanujan identities involve what are now called Alder polynomials. When he published that paper in the Monthly, the editor, Harley Flanders, wrote that Henry "has probably contributed more than anyone else to the present vitality of this Association." The same could be said today.

Henry Ludwig Alder was born in Duisburg, Germany, on March 26, 1922, but with Swiss citizenship. He and his family moved to Zürich in 1933 where he finished school and started his college education at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. In 1941 he transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his B.A. in mathematics and chemistry in 1942. He remained at Berkeley, with the exception of service in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1944-45, and wrote a dissertation under the direction of the eminent number theorist, D. H. Lehmer, completing his Ph.D. in 1947. After one year as an instructor at Berkeley, he moved to the University of California, Davis, where he remained until his retirement, except for a sabbatical in Zürich. At Davis he was a renowned teacher, both in his own field of number theory but also in statistics, an area in which he and his colleague, Edward B. Roessler, wrote a successful textbook that ran through six editions. On his own campus he served as department chair, and chair of various committees, including one on minority undergraduate research participation, another on culturally disadvantaged students. Statewide, he chaired the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools of the University of California system, among others.

Professor Alder served mathematics across a wide range, from school mathematics through research. For the Pacific Journal of Mathematics, he served on its Board of Governors from 1960 to 2002 and, from 1970 on he was chair of its Investment Committee. His interest in school mathematics resulted in his appointment to the California State Board of Education, the first mathematician and first UC faculty member to receive such an appointment. Another indication of the great range of his interests was his service as chair of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents in 1980, and from 1956 to 1959 he was the first national president of Mu Alpha Theta, the national high school and junior college mathematics club. I could give more examples of his many areas of service to mathematics and to education; the list is long.

Those who knew Henry Alder well always marveled at how organized he was. With an incredible memory he could call up precedents and procedures like few others. Subsequent MAA secretaries came to rely on Henry for advice on the handling of bylaws changes, responding to legal questions on incorporation, and such. He was a master of Robert's Rules of Order. If someone was planning to take a proposal to the MAA's Board of Governors, it was wise to be prepared for Henry's analysis. If he approved of the proposal he would come up with a set of arguments (numbered, of course) as to why he favored the proposal. On the other hand, one had to be prepared for a comparable list, seemingly thought out after considerable study, of all the reasons this same proposal was a bad idea.

In the Northern California Section he was responsible for procedural guidelines enunciated early on but still used by the officers today ? for example, the "Alder Rule", now extended to our national meetings, that says, "Don't invite a speaker for a meeting program unless someone on the program committee has heard the speaker and can vouch for the quality of his or her exposition." He himself was an exceptionally able speaker, and according to reports from his students, an inspiring teacher. A colleague of mine, as an undergraduate at Davis, took four courses in number theory from Henry and says of his teaching: "Henry had the ability both to awe students and put them at ease at the same time. His presence would fill the room and his humor, historical anecdotes and charming phrases kept all of us at the edge of our seats. He had an uncanny knack for teaching students how to write good proofs, both by his beautiful examples as well as by his clear hints that made proof-writing seem easy. Henry inspired me to become a number theorist and I strive to live up to his example today." In 1976 he won the UC Davis Award for Distinguished Teaching. In 1999 he endowed a fund in the UC Davis Mathematics Department that will support a $2000 prize each year to the mathematics graduate student deemed to be the best teacher. Additional revenue from the fund will be used to enhance undergraduate teaching.

When asked why the Northern California Section of the MAA has been so successful, he immediately responded that there are four reasons (as usual, the response was spontaneous, but still the arguments were numbered): (1) a strong Secretary-Treasurer; (2) a good representation of different kinds of schools?a rotating system for choosing meeting sites and officers, through research universities, comprehensive state universities, liberal arts colleges, two-year colleges, and industry [a practice probably due to Henry's influence]; (3) high quality speakers, chosen for their ability to reach an audience; and (4) an executive board where past officers stay on after their terms of office and continue to contribute, thus assuring continuity. He always reminded his colleagues that at an MAA meeting, a lecture should be given for the benefit of the audience, not the benefit of the speaker. Up to the last year or so, Henry attended almost every Section Executive Board meeting, and when the Section's annual meeting was held in Davis last March, Henry was the person in charge of local arrangements. It was an enormously successful meeting, a tribute to Henry's planning and conscientious attention to detail. In 1998 the Sectional Certificate of Meritorious Service was given to Henry at the Baltimore meetings. It was appropriate that he was recognized in this way for his contributions to the Section, even well after he had received the Award for Distinguished Service at the national level.

Henry was a person of absolute probity, always fair to his colleagues and generous with his time. In all my years of working with him on many committees and boards, I never heard him speak harshly of a colleague. On a proposed course of action he could be forceful in putting forth his arguments, but they were never ad hominem. He never spoke in a mean-spirited way. He was serious, always sincerely promoting what he was convinced was good for the organization, but he was not without humor. Ken Ross reports that when he was elected Secretary of the MAA in 1983, Henry was "the first person to congratulate [him]" and then went on to emphasize that "as Secretary, [Ken] would have a great deal of power and pointed out that Lenin was Secretary of the Communist Party, never President."

Henry's manner of dealing with people set the tone for relations between MAA officers, board members, and Washington office staff that, I think, still prevails?one of civility and of concern for the feelings of one's colleagues. He has left a lasting mark on the quality of this great organization. When he received the Distinguished Service Award in 1980, the citation included the following: "He has had tremendous and profound influence on all of mathematics, and, more than any other person, he has charted the course of the Mathematical Association of America for the past twenty years. There are mathematicians who have added greatly to mathematics through their research activities. Still others have contributed through their teaching. Finally, some mathematicians are willing and energetic workers on behalf of the professional organizations. But there are few among us who fill all three of these roles. Thus it is appropriate that we today honor Professor Henry L. Alder, an able researcher, an honored teacher, and a man who has made unparalleled contributions of time and energy to the professional activities of mathematicians."

We can say the same today after more than forty years. We shall miss him.

Let me close on a very personal note. Henry was responsible for my becoming involved deeply in the activities of the MAA. I always thought of him as a mentor. When I became MAA Secretary and later President, when faced with a problem I always thought, "What would Henry do?" I felt I was attempting to carry on, in some small way, the work that he had done so well.

He is survived by his wife Benne, who is a professional actress; a son and daughter-in-law, Lawrence and Janice Alder; two granddaughters, Allison and Catherine; two brothers and other family members.

Gerald L. Alexanderson has been both Secretary and President of the MAA