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Marcia Peterson Sward, Former MAA Executive Director, Has Died

Marcia Peterson Sward, who served as the MAA Executive Director from 1989–1999, died on September 21, 2008. The cause was kidney cancer.

Marcia Peterson Sward leaves a rich legacy of programs and services to members of MAA, to the mathematical sciences community of faculty, students, and math lovers, and to the public.

A summa cum laude graduate of Vassar College, Marcia Sward received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writing her dissertation on partial differential equations. She taught at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., before joining the MAA in 1980 as Associate Director.

Her duties then included directing the publication of the MAA's three journals and editing FOCUS, the Association's newsletter. Employing paper, red pencil, and a typewriter, she managed to bring out the first issue in March 1981.

The debut of FOCUS "was worth waiting for," Ralph Boas (Northwestern University) later wrote. "You are setting a high standard for yourself." NCTM President James Gates sent his congratulations. "This new periodical," he said, "should assist in keeping our profession better informed." Ivan Niven (University of Oregon) hailed "the balance of articles and announcements, of ideas on the one hand and facts on the other." And Don Albers, then Editor of the Two-Year College Mathematics Journal, exclaimed, "FOCUS is terrific. . . . Finally, something that I can say I've read from cover to cover."

Marcia Sward served as editor of FOCUS until September 1985, when she left the MAA to become Executive Director of the Mathematical Sciences Education Board (MSEB), which was established by the National Research Council in response to the David report ("Renewing U.S. Mathematics: Critical Resource for the Future"). The MSEB increased in influence and served as a focal point for the mathematical community on educational issues.

Marcia Sward returned to lead the MAA in 1989 when Alfred Willcox retired after 22 years as its Executive Director. Under Marcia's leadership, the MAA increased its membership, programs, and revenue. She was instrumental in initiating new programs, many of which were grant-supported. One was the SUMMA (Supporting Undergraduate Minority Mathematics Achievement) program. She also worked closely with mathematicians such as James Leitzel and Chris Stevens to found and fund Project NExT and collaborated with Ed Dubinsky to develop SIGMAAs.

The first special interest group, SIGMAA-RUME, became a reality just as Marcia Sward concluded her tenure as Executive Director in 1999. "It is time for me to move on to new challenges," she said. "I have had wonderful opportunities at the MAA." MAA President Gerald Alexanderson observed, "It is difficult to imagine the MAA without Marcia at the helm."

After her retirement from the MAA, Marcia served as Director of Education of the Audubon Naturalist Society.

Her family has indicated that contributions in her memory may be made to the Society at:

Audubon Naturalist Society
8940 Jones Mill Rd
Chevy Chase, MD 20815
(301) 652-3606

The memorial service is set for Saturday, October 4 at 11 a.m. at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, located at 9601 Cedar Lane, Bethesda, Maryland.


Ken Ross, University of Oregon

Just as I became MAA President (1995–1996), Marcia arranged for us to attend a one- or two-day workshop (probably offered by the Association Presidents organization, whatever its correct name is) in which we analyzed our different styles using, for example, Briggs. I think Marcia had us do this because she was concerned that I was going to be hard to work with. In any case, it was a good idea and got us off to a good start. And it was GREAT working with Marcia for the two years. I would run ideas by her and often got her to help rewrite my reports and articles, though she occasionally out-sourced this to Victor Katz (who was also excellent). This workshop that we attended was important to Marcia too, because she brought it up in our last conversation.

When MAA met in Orlando (January 1996), most of the MAA staff were stuck in Washington because of weather and either missed the whole meeting or most of it. (Don Albers made it.) After the Board meeting, I called Marcia to check in. She asked, "How did the meeting go?" I responded, "Great! We were done at 2:30." After a long pause, she responded with something like, "Because we on the staff weren't there?" Well, yes, that no doubt explained the early adjournment, but that hadn't been my point.

T. Christine Stevens, Saint Louis University

When Jim Leitzel and I were developing the idea for Project NExT, we wondered where we might obtain financial support for it.  It was Marcia Sward who interested the ExxonMobil Foundation in the project.  Whatever she told them, she must have been awfully persuasive, because their response was essentially to say, "We want to fund this; please send us a formal proposal."  Without her successful sales pitch, Project NExT might never have become a reality.

As Executive Director, Marcia took a keen interest in the progress of Project NExT, and that interest continued even after she left the MAA in 1999.  Valuable though I found her professional guidance and strategic advice, however, what I treasure even more is the recollection of her thoughtfulness, which was displayed in ways big and small, ranging from her concern for my husband's health to her horror at the devastation visited upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.  It was typical of Marcia that, at the end of my last telephone conversation with her, a week before she passed away, she asked me to contact a mutual friend, because she knew that that friend had been ill, and Marcia wanted to make sure that she was all right.

Ed Dubinsky

First and foremost, Marcia was for me, during the many years of her work with the MAA and after, the "face" of the organization. Aside from her many very concrete accomplishments, she made the MAA a warm, humane professional society. It was a pleasure to interact with her and she created a very positive atmosphere in all aspects of the organization.

In 1982,I approached Marcia with an idea for professional development of mathematicians who wanted to learn to teach computer science. Her support was immediate, enthusiastic and, during the two years it took to bring the project from idea to implementation, critical. The project, called the Institute for Retraining in Computer Science (IFRICS) lasted for 7 years and ended when graduate programs in CS finally began producing sufficient Ph'Ds to fill the need. At one point, 50% of the new faculty in CS came from IFRICS, and computer scientists tell me that it changed the nature of Computer Science Education in the US. I saw many job ads in CS that listed IFRICS as an alternative to a CS degree as a requirement. Although the program was never officially an MAA project (it was funded by the Sloan Foundation for its first four years and then became self-sufficient), Marcia's role as a member of the Advisory Board was key. I believe the program contributed to the rise of Professional Development Activity in the MAA.

In the mid-1980s, Marcia approached me with the idea of a newsletter about undergraduate mathematics education. We obtained funding from the NSF and produced a quality publication, UME Trends for 10 years, filling a need that was not met by any other publication. After it ceased publication, many features of UME Trends were moved to FOCUS. Again, Marcia's drive for innovation and entrepreneurial spirit led to an important contribution to Mathematical life in the US.

Ken Hoffman

Beyond her intellect, Marcia's special gifts were her warmth and vitality. They were infectious, impacting every project and every person she worked with.

Lynn Steen, St. Olaf College

Former MAA President Lynn Steen, who worked with Marcia throughout much of her work for MAA and MSEB, cites her contagious enthusiasm as a key to her leadership abilities. “She was a perfect example, in Robert Kennedy's memorable image, of a person who dreams of things that never were and asks why not? MAA programs such as SUMMA and Project NExT are living memorials to her energy, effort, and commitment.”

Lida Barrett

Marcia returned to MAA at the time of Al Wilcox's retirement just as I assumed the role of President of MAA. Because of her past role at MAA she offered wonderful support to me in my role as President. Her wide contacts in the mathematics profession, many from her time at the MSEB, helped expand MAA's interactions and influence with other organizations and activities. Her knowledge of funding sources and her ability as a grant writer significantly expanded outside support for MAA. Marcia spoke Spanish, an additional talent she had that I was unaware of until she joined my sister and I motoring from Madrid to the International Conference on Mathematics Education in Seville. While she was growing up, her family had lived in Mexico at one point. Her constant thoughtfulness of others and a cheerful manner lasted throughout her lifetime. When I talked with her on the phone at the time she was moving to the hospice she remarked: "All good things must come to an end at some point."

Lisa Kolbe

Gracious - the word epitomizes Marcia's persona, her demeanor, and way of life. As host, she opened her home to many at her New Year's Day parties and a particularly fun Halloween party. My daughter and I were honored to be entertained aboard her beautiful boat. There was always laughter with Marcia in the room - together we laughed a lot and often. I will treasure the memories of the time we shared on the MAA's first study tour to Greece and remember her dancing high in the mountain village of Vourliotes in the lovely white Greek outfit she bought on the island of Samos.

News Date: 
Monday, September 22, 2008