In Memoriam

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James Buford MacQueen ’52

James Buford MacQueen ’52, July 15, 2014, at home in Santa Monica, California. Jim served in the U.S. Army occupation of Japan when he was just out of high school and entered the University of Wyoming to study engineering. He transferred to Reed in his junior year, pleased to have avoided the rigors of the first-year humanities program, and earned a BA in psychology. Throughout his life, he expressed gratitude for the G.I. Bill.

After Reed, he entered a doctoral program in psychology at the University of Oregon, where he earned a PhD in 1958. On a postgraduate fellowship from NIH, he studied at UC Berkeley, with Edward Chase Tolman as his sponsor. He then accepted a research position at UCLA and soon thereafter joined the faculty of UCLA’s Graduate School of Management. When asked, he usually said he taught applied mathematics, which included game theory, probability, and problem solving. As a matter of principle, he always gave his students As. However, it was in providing fresh ideas for problems in search of solutions that Jim excelled. His research focused on providing mathematical formulations of human processes. In his first paper, he investigated a large class of optimal stopping problems, spawning a large area of research. He was also a pioneer in the development of “K-means,” a method of detecting clusters in multivariate data, derivations of which are used in many other fields, from genetic research to computer visualization.

During his tenure at UCLA, Jim spent leaves and sabbaticals at Stanford, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Oslo. He retired in 1999. Friends, colleagues, and family members remember Jim as outgoing, humble, and always willing to give credit to others. He firmly believed that the results of his research belonged to the public domain. He had an easygoing, even temperament. Above all, he supported and encouraged others to pursue an ambition, a heart’s desire—to go for it! Music was important to him, and Jim always brought a guitar to family gatherings. As a lover of poetry, Jim sought poetry readings in all his travels and was a member of the Santa Clarita Poets Society. Some remember him as an avid kriegspiel player. One of his fellow kriegspiel enthusiasts characterized Jim’s strategy as “high risk.” Jim enjoyed the challenges of problems and was often preoccupied by attempts to devise “a better way.” 

Jim attended Reed Reunions for many years and was a member of the Los Angeles Reed book group. After he lost his eyesight in 2003, his wife, Anne, became his reader and she also joined the book group. Having grown up in Wyoming at a time (and place) when log cabins with sod roofs had not yet disappeared, Jim never forgot the pleasure of life outdoors: he was set loose in the Bighorn Mountains to camp, wander, and fish—and sometimes get lost—and he shared this pleasure with his family.

Survivors include Anne, daughters Katherine (Kate) and Mary, son Donald, granddaughter Sarah MacQueen ’11, and grandsons Metabrafor, Onome, and Kiemute Agindotan and James MacQueen. Our thanks to Anne and Kate for providing this memorial to Jim.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2014

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