You are here

In Memoriam - Jim White: 1946-2004

Gerald J. Porter

Note: These remarks are based upon biographical material sent to me by Sally White, as well as Jim's home page, Dan Kalman's tribute to Jim on MAA Online, and my own papers and recollections. They were presented on January 8, 2005 at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Atlanta, GA in a session honoring Jim. GJP

Jim was born on March 27, 1946 on a US Army base in Livorno, Italy. His father was an American soldier, his mother Italian. He was the eldest of four children, having two brothers and a much younger sister.

His mother was from Naples and was a native speaker of the Neapolitan ("Napolitan") dialect of Italian. Jim grew up speaking some Napolitan, and studied Italian in college. He went to Italy for a summer with a group of college students during his college years.

His family moved to New York City when Jim was two. They lived for a time with his grandmother in Harlem and eventually moved to the South Bronx. Jim attended New York public elementary school through third grade, then transferred to Catholic parochial schools. He graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1963 and from Fordham University  in 1967.

Jim loved growing up in New York City -- he loved the Public Library, the Museum of Natural History and the Planetarium . He always had a chemistry set and used to visit the retail outlet of the Gilbert Chemical Company to restock it -- and buy chemicals not usually supplied in sets. As a child and young man, he wanted to build a computer and to launch rockets.

Jim received his PhD from Yale in 1972 as a student of William Massey. MathSciNet lists two papers by Jim, one on Morse theory and one on characteristic classes -- the latter co-authored with Chern.

In the summer of 1973 Jim met his future wife, Sally. She was a graduate student who took a summer calculus course taught by him. They were married in August, 1974, and had four children: Lisa, Jeremy, Michael, and Emily. Jim had two granddaughters (Michael's daughters with his wife, Monique) -- Angelie (2 years) and Ramona (now 10 months). Emily is still at home in Morehead City, North Carolina; the others all live in California. Jim was always very supportive of Sally and was proud that she returned to school for a divinity degree. When she received her own pulpit he gladly followed her to Morehead City. He was living there when he died in his sleep on July 17 at the age of 58.

Jim was always a teacher. He began tutoring, especially in math, when he was 12 or 13 years old. Virtually all his professional passion was for teaching, in some form or another. He did not do a post-doc after finishing at Yale, but chose instead to go directly into undergraduate teaching, taking a position at the University of California at San Diego in 1972, and oscillating between teaching positions at Carleton College, Spelman College, Bates College, Kenyon College, and research positions at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Institute for Academic Technology at UNC-Chapel Hill, and finally his own consulting company, Bluejay Lispware, which operates the New Mathwright Library and Café on the web. He held visiting positions at Harvey Mudd College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, and Stetson University, and he taught for one semester at Carteret Community College in Morehead City.

Jim was interested in the epistemological basis for the pedagogical styles that were in general use. That interest led him to Piaget's "constructivist" interpretation of the psychology of mathematics learning and Piaget's book, To understand is to invent . This approach holds that the learner actively constructs knowledge by challenging old ideas, and assimilating new ones into increasingly stable "structures". More simply stated, the student learns through experimentation rather than through rote. This approach is also called constructivist or discovery-based learning

For this approach to succeed, the students need heuristic tools that help them form coherent pictures of the mathematical processes and constructions under discussion, and that allow them quickly to test their understanding by showing them the answers to the questions they asked.

In 1980 Seymour Papert published his book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, also influenced by Piaget. This led Jim, in 1982, to think about using the recently introduced microcomputers as heuristic devices that support student construction of their mathematical knowledge. He first developed tools for students, but soon realized that the heuristic tools that students would use ought to be created by their teachers. These teachers are a good representative sample of "the best students," and, given the right tools, can create learning environments for their students that are both relevant and accessible to them.

On July 25, 1990, Bill Graves convened a meeting at the Institute for Academic Technology, which he directed to "reflect on how IBM technologies (and the Windows environment) might best be used to strengthen the basic mathematical curriculum." Those present were Marcia Sward, Gene Herman, Dave Smith, Ladnor Geissinger, Jerry Hefley, Lester Senechal, Jerry Uhl, Jim White, and myself. The result of that meeting was the decision to develop a proposal that eventually led to the Interactive Mathematics Text Project. The IMTP was funded by IBM and NSF, and over the next five years it ran dozens of workshops that introduced hundreds of high school and college teachers to the idea of authoring interactive texts.

Let me read from a document that Jim wrote that explains this concept:

"Interactive books are a new medium for teaching and for learning. They promise to explore some of the genuine contributions that computer environments can make in the area of education. To the extent that they are successful in uncovering these possibilities, they will challenge authors to implement new and unfamiliar pedagogic strategies, and they will generate ideas and approaches to teaching that could not have been imagined before these computer environments became available. The advantages of a uniform and intuitive medium that encourages, on the part of the readers, both active participation and the articulation and exploration of their own questions are obvious."

This was Jim's vision, and he spent 30 years of his life working to see that it became a reality. Many of us here today were influenced by this vision, and it changed the way that our students learn.

Let me finish by reading from Sally's eulogy for Jim:

One of Jim's heroes was Albert Einstein. In our house in Union City, California, on the back of the door of his study, hung a poster, a beautiful portrait of Einstein, with the quotation on it: "I want to know God's thoughts...the rest are details."

Jim, too, aspired to know God's thoughts. On the night he died, he was reading quantum mechanics - again - and he told me during that day that he thought he was beginning to understand, just a little, what the whole thing was about. He was excited.

But someone else once said that "God is in the details."

And for me, it's the little details that are the hooks for memory, that catch and hold the image, the scent, the essence of day to day living - the only living that I can understand. The smell of coffee in the morning - 'cause Jim couldn't properly wake up without coffee. The taste of sweet coffee in his moustache when we kissed. Pipe ash all over his study, and crumbs of potato chips in his car - jalapeño chips, or habanera if he could get them. Tabasco sauce on his food - he once said that even pasta e fagioli (pasta fazool) tasted just like steak if you put enough Tabasco on it! His quirky sense of humor: he was infamous in the family for his "Jimmy Jokes" - complex jokes (often puns) that made you think before they made you laugh, and usually needed explaining. They were almost universally greeted with groans!

His smile, and the excitement in his voice, when he really got going on the solution to a problem, and the details began to fall into place. His pride and joy in our children and their accomplishments, and how it glowed in his brown eyes.

A friend of mine recently noted that when a person dies, we write the dates, in this case, 1946-2004. The most important part of this is not the "bookends" 1946 and 2004; instead it is the hyphen in the middle, which signifies the time of one's life and the contributions that one makes. Jim taught us many things and challenged us to improve the way our students learn mathematics. He leaves a rich legacy and we will miss him.

Gerald J. Porter, "In Memoriam - Jim White: 1946-2004," Convergence (August 2005)