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Obituary for Gerald (“Jerry”) L. Alexanderson

Gerald L. Alexanderson (1933 - 2020), long-time leader and former president of MAA

Washington, D.C. - Long-time professor of mathematics at Santa Clara University (SCU), Gerald L. Alexanderson, died on Wednesday, December 16, 2020. Born into a California family in Idaho on November 13, 1933, Alexanderson received his education at the University of Oregon and Stanford University before joining the faculty of SCU in 1958. He often cited the influence of his mentors: Ivan Niven when an undergraduate, George Pólya when a graduate student, and A. P. Hillman when a beginning faculty member.

Upon his retirement in 2018, after 60 years of service to SCU, his department established the Alexanderson Lecture to commemorate Alexanderson’s extraordinary contributions to the communication of mathematics. Many in the department credit Alexanderson’s generous mentorship; he is particularly remembered for the breadth of his knowledge and the sharpness of his wit. A common sentiment among faculty and alumni alike is, “I am the mathematician I am today because of Jerry.”

Known as an effective and respected teacher, Alexanderson also served SCU as a long-time administrator−35 years as chair of the Department of Mathematics (later the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science), and nine years as Division Director of Physical Sciences and Mathematics. During his long tenure at Santa Clara, he served on many committees and presided over several administrative units, ranging from College and departmental committees to University-wide roles, such as directing the University's Honors Program and serving on the University Board of Trustees. University honors include being named the inaugural Faculty Senate Professor in 1990 and receiving the first Joseph Bayma Award for Scholarship in 1996. From 1979 to 2016, he held an endowed chair and was named Michael and Elizabeth Valeriote Professor.

Alexanderson made memorable contributions to mathematics through the governance of regional and national mathematical organizations. He served on the Board of Governors of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) for a record setting total of 24 years on the Board over a span of 30 years. For this organization he also served as First Vice-President, Secretary, and eventually as President. In 2005, he received the MAA Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching in Mathematics, as well as the MAA Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics.

Alexanderson also served for twelve years as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Senate, the national governing board for Phi Beta Kappa, the most venerable of academic honorary societies, established in 1776. (He was not, contrary to rumors, one of the founding members of Phi Beta Kappa!)

More significant than these administrative assignments, Alexanderson wrote and edited extensively, writing 19 books, often with coauthors, the two most recent published by the Princeton University Press and the Cambridge University Press. He also authored or coauthored approximately 200 mathematical papers, articles, and reviews. Over various periods he edited Mathematics Magazine and served as associate editor of The American Mathematical Monthly and the College Mathematics Journal. For 18 years Alexanderson was editor of the Spectrum Book Series for the MAA. He was active in promoting various mathematical problem competitions, including long service as Associate Director of the prestigious William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. He was active too in the establishment of the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM), in collaboration with a former SCU students, Brian Conrey and John Fry. AIM has established the Alexanderson Prize, awarded annually for the best piece of mathematical research published during the previous year and at least in part produced with AIM support. Alexanderson's own mathematical work was in combinatorics, especially that motivated by geometry, and in number theory.

Outside the strict confines of mathematics, Alexanderson was known as a significant collector of rare books and mathematical art. He published in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, over a period of 12 years, a series of about 25 historical-mathematical articles, each highlighting a work from his own collection. Professor Alexanderson is survived by his friend and former Putnam Director Professor Emeritus Leonard Klosinski, numerous colleagues and close friends, as well as several first, second, and third cousins. At his request there will be no services of any kind. Contributions may be made to the Alexanderson Lecture Fund at Santa Clara University or to the Mathematical Association of America.