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Virginia Halmos Dies at Age 99

Virginia Halmos died on January19, 2015 in Los Gatos California. A long-time benefactor of the MAA and other mathematical and scholarly institutions, she was the widow of the very prominent mathematician, Paul R. Halmos. In 2002 Paul and Virginia contributed nearly $4,000,000 for the renovation and construction of the Carriage House Conference Center adjacent to the MAA headquarters complex a block off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. This facility was recently named the best such meeting site for gatherings of fewer than 100 in the United States. Further Halmos gifts to the MAA include funds for programs at the Carriage House as well as other gifts in support of the Euler Prize and the Halmos-Ford Prize for expository writing. For the American Mathematical Society Paul and Virginia provided funds to establish the J. L. Doob Prize to recognize outstanding mathematical exposition.

Virginia Templeton Pritchett Halmos was born December 21, 1915 into a professional-business family in Omaha, Nebraska—her father was a broker and an uncle was a lawyer for the Union Pacific Railroad, headquartered in Omaha. She attended Vassar College, followed by graduate study at Brown University in logic and the foundations of mathematics. As a girl she spent summers in New York with a great aunt who lived at the fashionable St. Regis Hotel, and enjoyed her winters at the similarly elegant (and warmer than Omaha!) Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. She was a child of privilege, a mathematical counterpart of the legendary Eloise at the Plaza. In 1945 she married Paul Halmos and with Paul she participated in the academic life at the Institute for Advanced Study, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. They also enjoyed stays at Edinburgh and Montevideo, and later positions at the University of Hawaii, Indiana University (Bloomington), the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara University, which also benefited greatly from Virginia’s generosity. It is not surprising that in the mathematical world she just seemed to know everyone.

After Paul died in 2006 she stayed on in a senior residence in Los Gatos. She remained intensely interested in mathematics, politics, literature, and music. Right up to her death, she could recite from memory long poems, mainly but not restricted to poems in English. With a great memory she could tell stories about the many mathematicians she had known and she was always eager to hear the latest news of progress on well-known unsolved mathematical problems. In her last weeks she was still listening to drafts of an upcoming book on G. H. Hardy and reminiscing about J. E. Littlewood (whom, she was proud to say, she had been seated next to at high table at Trinity), Frank Smithies and others of Hardy’s era. But her passion was words, the high point of her week being a Wednesday game of Scrabble with a close friend. As good as the opposition was, Virginia almost always won. With failing eyesight these games became more difficult and before a game she would announce that this would be her last Scrabble game. But when she was challenged one day that she had been playing her last Scrabble game for some months, she hesitated, thought for a minute, and stated mischievously that she would be playing her 42nd last Scrabble game.

At the request of Mrs. Halmos, no services are planned.

Written by Gerald L. Alexanderson

News Date: 
Tuesday, January 20, 2015