Professor Beaver's Memorial Minute

Faculty Memorial Minute, February 6, 2013

[ --- originally composed by Don Beaver, and edited by Susan Loepp, with additional comments, additions, and emendations by Don Beaver, Stewart Johnson, Victor Hill, and Colin Adams.]

Olga Rozinak Beaver, Professor of Mathematics.

Her Early Years

Olga Rozinak Beaver was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1942.  Her earliest memory was of hiding in her apartment house basement with her mother during a bombing raid.  She lived in that house until 1949, when she, with her parents and sister, leaving nearly all their belongings behind, illegally fled to West Germany at night, evading police and dogs.  They spent the next two years in displaced person camps near Munich, moving to London in late 1951.  After witnessing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2, the Rozinak family emigrated to the United States and settled on Long Island, where Ollie spent the rest of her childhood.

In 1960, Ollie began her undergraduate career at Smith College.  Shortly after, she met her future husband, Don, at Rahar’s bar in Northampton.  Ollie was carrying a Calculus textbook, which pretty much sealed the deal.  They married in 1962.  Ollie was allowed to continue her education at Smith College, on the condition that she promise to resign if she became pregnant.  In fall, 1962, Ollie became pregnant. According to Smith policy, she had to leave the college.

Don and Ollie had two children, Donald, born in 1963 and James, born in 1965.  After Donald’s birth, Ollie applied for readmission to Smith, and was told that she should stay home and take care of her child. That fall she began taking mathematics courses at Southern Connecticut State College, and continued doing so for the next 3 years.

When Don finished his Ph. D. in 1966, the family moved to Kansas City for Don’s new job.  In two years, Ollie had completed her bachelors degree in mathematics at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, and in 1969, she received her masters degree after which she taught there as an instructor.

After a year in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Don taught at Franklin and Marshall and Ollie was an instructor as well as a substitute teacher in junior high, the couple moved to Williamstown in 1971, where they remained until Ollie’s untimely death.

In anticipation of moving to Williamstown, Ollie applied for teaching positions in the Williamstown area in 1971.  The official response to her application from a local high school (that, by the way, was NOT Mount Greylock) was, and I quote:

Dear Mrs. Beaver:

          We are adding teachers to the staff in the fall.  One of the positions is to be a math-science combination due to releasing department chairmen for co-ordinating work.  For this we will prefer a male.

         It is possible that the Junior High school may have a vacancy.

          Thank you again for your interest.

Ollie then found a temporary position, teaching math at North Adams State College.  In fall 1972, then 29 years old, she entered the Ph. D. program in mathematics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Because she was commuting from Williamstown to Amherst, Ollie stayed overnight at UMass-Amherst many nights, where she slept on her office desk.  In 1978, she won the UMass-Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award.  That same year, she was especially delighted to be hired by none other than Smith College as an instructor for two semesters. In June, 1979, Ollie earned her Ph. D. in the mathematics of quantum logic, the field in which most of her papers were published.  That July, she was hired as an Assistant Professor by Williams College.  It was the first time Williams College had ever hired a woman in the Department of Mathematics.

Ollie’s First Sabbatical – Two Life Lessons

Ollie’s first sabbatical at MIT changed her life in two major ways.

The first was that she learned the term “Sitzfleisch”, which loosely means “sitting-flesh”, or dogged persistence in order to solve problems.  In subsequent years, Ollie never missed an opportunity to tell her students, “You’ve got to have Sitzfleisch.”

The second involved a transformational epiphany.  Ollie, who hadn’t been particularly physically active, enrolled in an aerobics class with the well-known Maggie Lettvin, and became a convert.  From 1984 until 2012, Ollie dragged her husband to student jazzercise classes, then aerobics classes, and she finally began to teach classes herself, moving from aerobics to step aerobics, and finally to spinning at the ungodly hour of 6:15 a.m., occasionally filling in for the instructor.

Ollie at Williams

Ollie’s service to the college was extensive.  When Ollie came to Williams in 1979, there were very few female faculty, especially in the sciences, and so they had to do double duty on faculty committees.  In all, Ollie served on 17 different committees, including CPR, Athletics, CAS, CUL, the Council of Senior Women, the Steering Committee–on which she served for 9 years, chairing it for 2– and the Winter Study Committee, which she chaired for 10 years.  Ollie served as the Gaudino Scholar for 3 years, and for 17 years she was a Faculty Marshall, a job in which she particularly loved the special hats.

Ollie exhibited continued devotion to education in science and mathematics, by helping to establish the Math and Science Resource Center, and co-coordinating the Quantitative Studies Program.

She was a driving force behind the resuscitation of the Summer Science Program in 1987, and her commitment was complete and wholehearted.  She directed SSP for 10 years, and taught in it for 26 consecutive years, touching the lives of some 500 students, extending to them a helping hand and kind welcome that they needed to make Williams a diverse and thriving intellectual community.  She cared for and looked after all her summer science students during their time at Williams College and beyond, so much so that she came to be known by them as “Mother Beaver.” A significant number of the students in the program have gone on to obtain doctorates in the physical sciences or medical degrees, and are practicing researchers and physicians.

Her devotion to mathematics education was recognized by the Association for Women in Mathematics in 1991 by awarding her the second ever Louise Hay Award for Contributions to Mathematics Education.

Ollie chaired the Department of Mathematics and Statistics for 5 and one half years, and was fond of saying she had hired all of the present faculty.

Her ability to work well with everyone in the math/stat department was enviable.  She worked hard behind the scenes, assuaging bruised egos, brokering compromise and providing the glue that allowed us to function as an effective unit.  Many of the successes of the department can be attributed to her capacity for getting us to merge together to attain our common goals.

Ollie had a gift for making everyone feel comfortable, especially junior faculty and women.  In my second week at Williams, all women faculty were invited to a reception at the Faculty House.  On my way, I stopped by Ollie’s office and asked if she was going to the “chick event” at the Faculty House.  I was immediately horrified that I had mistakenly used the possibly offensive word “chick” in the presence of my department chair.  As I stood paralyzed, trying to figure out how to get out of this one, without missing a beat, Ollie leaned over to me and said, “Some of us are hens.”  It was at that moment, I realized I had a very special department chair.

Her service extended far beyond the purple valley. In recent years, Ollie very much enjoyed being a National Science Foundation panelist for Graduate Research Fellowships in the Mathematical Sciences.  She served in this capacity for a total of 8 years, 2 of them as chair of the panel.

Character

Ollie’s most salient characteristics were perseverance, commitment, hard work, independence, resilience, self-discipline, compassion, modesty, and mothering.

One of Ollie’s most admirable traits was her unheralded compassion.  When a friend, a colleague, or a student suffered a life crisis, Ollie was there with the person, offering patience, understanding, encouragement, and sage advice with never a thought for the amount of time and energy it was costing her.

Legacy

Diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2009, Ollie died of stage 4 metastatic breast cancer of the bone on December 7, 2012.  She continued teaching until the day she eloquently said goodbye to her students on November 9, 2012.  Ollie left this world as gracefully as she filled it.

Those of us who were privileged to have had her as a faculty mentor or peer will always remember her deep respect for the dignity of every person, her self-effacing encouragement, and her ultimate integrity as a person and as a professional.

The Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Williams College, and the broader community will benefit for many years to come from the innumerable contributions and amazing life of Olga R. Beaver.