Olga R. Beaver

Our dear colleague, teacher, and friend, Ollie Beaver, who passed on Friday, was a mainstay of our department and the College. At a small gathering at the Faculty House Friday afternoon, Stewart Johnson (department chair), expressed our admiration and gratitude for her life amidst family and friends. Ollie founded and sustained the Summer Science Program (SSP) for admitted students from varied backgrounds. Her colleague Wendy Raymond wrote on Saturday:

Last night, I held an impromptu gathering of SSP students so that we could come together to grieve and to honor Ollie Beaver. The outpouring of respect, gratitude, and love from 29 students crammed into Paresky 220 for 90 minutes on a Friday night moved me immensely. We spoke Quaker-meeting style, so that everyone who wanted to share had room and time to do so. I heard about the immensely positive impacts of Ollie’s unflagging confidence in students’ abilities to learn calculus, particularly when students had no previous calculus experience; of her excellent, transformative teaching; of her invaluable academic advising skills; of her unwavering focus on students’ health and happiness even when she was ill; of her sense of humor that came out in endearing fashion; and of the enduring impact of her smile, with which she greeted students as they entered every class…. Ollie’s untimely passing is a devastating loss. But her legacy lives on in so many ways, not the least of which was shown by the generations of SSP students gathered on very short notice in her honor.

Largely for her work with SSP, Ollie received the second national Louise Hay Award of the Mathematical Association of America in 1991. The following material is taken with permission from that nomination.

The Hay Award Committee
Association for Women in Mathematics

I would like to nominate for The Louise Hay Award for Contributions to Mathematics Education Professor Olga Beaver. Professor Beaver is the director of a summer science program for minority students.  Currently she is also the Williams College Gaudino Scholar, a position to recognize and support major educational initiative.

In addition to my own nominating letter, enclosed are letters from her colleague Charles Lovett, letters from students Kristina Broadhurst and Burt Fealing, a summary of her activities as Director of the Summer Science Program, and her curriculum vitae.

From her early experiences as an excellent and popular teacher at Williams, Ollie became increasingly concerned by the difficulties experienced by the minority students in the sciences.  She realized that the problems did not stem from lack of ability or from the students’ backgrounds.  Rather, she saw a lack of encouragement and support for the few minority students in the sciences and, above all, too few successful role models.  While a majority student might experience as high frustration in a science course as a minority student, the majority student had many more sources from which he or she felt comfortable seeking help and encouragement.  All too often the minority student internalized the frustration and gave up (not only on the sciences, but on Williams entirely).

In 1987 Ollie became the first director of a  new Summer Science Program (SSP).  Her commitment has been complete and wholehearted.  It is clear that for her the most important and rewarding aspect of directing the program has been the involvement with the students.  What has been most extraordinary to witness is the change in spirit, not only of the minority students from SSP but also of the many more minority students who have not come through the SSP.  SSP students may learn some survival skills during their five‑week sojourn in the summer that non‑SSP students need to discover after they come to Williams, but the remarkable benefit of the SSP has been the confidence, the sense of mutual support and the feeling of trust of the institution that SSP students bring with them upon entry into Williams.  Notably, this spirit has been transmitted to other, non‑SSP students.  Now there are successful role models; students help each other.  Word gets around that people care here.

Ollie certainly has had a significant effect on many students.  Because of the Summer Science Program many minority students feel comfortable seeking her advice.  I could hardly list here all of the SSP students who drop by her office to say hello or to use her Kleenex.  She has dealt with academic problems, social problems, problems of the heart as well as with the joys of success and the excitement of future plans falling into place.  (Indeed, there is a large contingent of students who call her “mom.”)  She has dealt with midnight phone calls from parents whose children are ill; she has “found” students for parents who could not get through the phone system; she has been able to get Sawyer Library unlocked for a parent to get a look at her son’s honor thesis.

Moreover, her contacts with minority students go beyond the family of Summer Science.  For example, a couple of years ago one student sought her out to tell her that he wanted to leave Williams because he felt that he could not bear the financial burden of remaining.  She spent many hours talking with him, encouraging him to stay, convincing him to postpone his financial worries to a time “after Williams” when, because of a Williams education, he would clearly be able to cope.  He recently was named a Rhodes Scholar.  Another student came to see her when she was having a difficult time trying to deal with a conflict between her parents’ plans for her and her own goals;  Ollie was able to help her resolve the situation.  Minority students whom Ollie has never met say hello to her in passing on campus.

Frank Morgan, Chair, Department of Mathematics, October 9, 1991


Here are updates from those two former students:

Date: Fri, 7 Dec 2012
From: kristina broadhurst
I have a very heavy heart with Ollie’s passing, but was fortunate to have been able to visit with Ollie and Don last week. It provides me some comfort to have had that one last chance to tell her how much she’s meant to me over so many years. Thank you for reminding me of the letter. Though written in 1991, it is still true over 20 years later which is a testament to the impact of this great woman. The gifts of her encouragement, confidence and faith in me fueled a trajectory that made it possible for me to become not only a successful professional (graduate of Harvard Medical School and then UCLA Anderson School of Business), but more importantly, a successful person. I have tried very hard to pass on the gifts that Ollie gave me.  Her example has continued to live on in me, particularly via my long-standing passion for tutoring and mentoring with my focus being on at-risk youths. My time at Williams gave me an invaluable educational foundation, but Ollie literally changed my life….With sympathy, kindest regards, and thanks to Ollie, I am humbly able to sign my name…
Kristina M. Broadhurst, MD, MBA, Successful Person

Date: Fri, 7 Dec 2012 22:37:58 +0000
I am extremely saddened to hear about the passing of Ollie Beaver. Ollie was extremely instrumental in my development and in my time at Williams. …we are all saddened by the loss of Ollie, however, our lives are much more fulfilled and enriched because of her commitment to help us develop to become the leaders that we are today. Ollie’s legacy lives on in all of the people that she helped inside and outside of the classroom.

Burt M. Fealing
ITT Corporation
1133 Westchester Avenue
White Plains, NY 10604

There are more comments on Facebook at Eph Alum and here below. Many thanks to the contributors.

Memorial Minute.

We are creating an annual Olga R. Beaver Prize in mathematics to a student for contributions to our department. If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to its endowment, send a check made out to Williams College, with a note that it is for the Olga R. Beaver prize in math, to Lewis Fisher, Williams College Development Office, 75 Park Street, Williamstown, MA 01267.