RAY
MAYER, PROFESSOR OF MATHEMATICS
When Ray Mayer applied for a temporary faculty post at Reed in the mid1970s,
his choice of schools was guided by the study of maps rather than math.
“I took a map of the United States and drew a big circle around Los
Angeles and the entire East Coast,” says Mayer, an erstwhile New
York City resident who had recently become a faculty casualty of New York
University’s financial woes. “Then I looked for places outside
of those circles.”
At the end of his oneyear stint at Reed, he was offered a halftime position
and then a fulltime post. Twentyeight years later, Mayer is such a fixture
in Reed’s math department that as his impending retirement nears,
his colleagues are firmly stuck in the first stage of grief: denial. “It’s
horrifying to imagine Ray gone,” says Jim Fix, a relatively new member
of Reed’s tightknit mathematics faculty.
In fact, Mayer hopes to retain an office at Reed, so colleagues won’t
soon miss his amiable personality, his elfish sense of humor, or his fluency
in a wide range of mathematical topics. He hopes to remain connected not
only to colleagues but also to students, whom he credits with keeping
him at his job for more than a quartercentury. “Reed students are
great. I’m astonished at what they will put up with in terms of difficult,
abstract courses,” says Mayer. “I think at most places, there
would be a revolt. But students at Reed want to work.”
The faculty, he says, are in turn infected by the scholarly ardor of students
— one of whom once sought to crown Mayer as Reed’s first monarch
by plastering “Ray Mayer for King” posters around Eliot Hall.
That incident, says mathematics professor Joe Buhler ’72, illustrates
how Mayer endears himself to students with an engaging and direct teaching
style. “He has an enthusiasm for teaching and an ability to be interested
in almost anything,” says Buhler.
Mayer’s mathematical interests center on classical analysis —
which includes the underpinnings of advanced calculus — as well as
the foundations of mathematics, which are as constant as his field is
everchanging. In particular, Mayer marvels at how much the computer has
changed his profession. He figures he taught the first class at Reed that
used computers, an upperlevel course in numerical analysis, and says
the machines have forced mathematicians to think “much more algorithmically.”
His surroundings have evolved, too. He recalls his topfloor perch in
Eliot Hall and its view of Mt. St. Helens when it still had its top. Today
a shelf in his temporary office in the physics building holds a spice
jar containing ash that he scooped off his office windowsill after the
eruption.
Mayer says he hopes to be around for even more changes. He’s not
ready to stray too far from Reed just yet. “We have a great common
interest,” he says of both his colleagues and his students. “It’s
hard to find people to talk to about a technical subject like this.”
In retirement, he’ll continue to work on individual mathematical
challenges — he’s currently immersed in quasi crystals —
and resume teaching himself Latin grammar so he can more deeply delve
into the history of mathematics by increasing his comprehension of seventeenthcentury
texts. In many ways, his postretirement life is likely to resemble what
came before. “I look forward to Ray’s retirement,” says
Buhler, “because he’ll be able to do lots of mathematics.”
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