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Statistician Who Defied The Odds.

H. Jean Tibbets Thiebaux ’57

March 17, 2015, in Woodbine, Maryland, of lung cancer.

Jean was a statistician who served 16 years at the National Weather Service in the National Center for Environmental Prediction of the Department of Commerce. She also taught mathematics at a number of colleges, including Howard Community College, Montgomery College, Dalhousie University, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She chaired the mathematics advisory committee of the Howard County (Maryland) public school system. While working at Dalhousie, she was awarded a seven-month contract to conduct a network design study for the Atmospheric Environment Service of Canada.

Born in Michigan, Helen Jean Tibbets was the daughter of Helen Griffin Tibbets ’27, and the granddaughter of Prof. Frank Loxley Griffin [math 1911-56], who was appointed Reed’s first professor in 1911. She attended high school in Rockville, Maryland, and when it came time to consider what college she would attend, Jean turned to American Men of Science, a publication about the leading men of science in the U.S. and Canada. She concluded that of the top 50 undergraduate institutions producing future leaders in science, Reed led the pack. Her father, concerned that she not just single out one school, asked her to apply a number of places, including Caltech.

“Caltech didn’t admit women,” Jean remembered, “and they were bold in informing me of that fact. So I applied to just a couple of other places and, fortunately, Reed did accept me.”

She intended to pursue an engineering program, but after starting at Reed, Jean discovered she was more interested in mathematics. During her freshman year, she lived on the third floor of Kerr House, sharing her room with a pet rabbit named Harvey, until the dean of students, Ann Shepard ’23 [dean’s office, 1926-1968] made her get rid of him. Jean developed a strong interest in the humanities and philosophy, and a lifelong affection for mountain climbing, rock climbing, and skiing.

During her freshman year, Reed President Duncan S. Ballantine [1952-1954] resigned, and the Board of Trustees brought Jean’s grandfather, Frank Loxley Griffin back from retirement to be interim president [1954-1956].

“He and my grandmother put an enormous amount of effort in their caring for Reed, putting it back on track,” Jean remembered. But many students and faculty who had been dissatisfied with Ballantine’s administration of the college, regarded Griffin as too old and conservative to take the lead, and it became awkward for Jean.

“I would walk into a room where there was a very heated discussion of how the college was going to respond to this new administration, and the discussion would die,” Jean remembered. “I was not admitted to the inner circles and it made me feel pretty lonely. I felt singularly out in the cold during that year, but I was very proud to see how my grandparents managed to get people reunited in following the founding principles of Reed College—and making it a healthy, forward-looking institution once again.”

Jean also recalled the impact of the McCarthy era at Reed. When a visiting aunt broached the topic of communism, Jean responded, “Do you think it’s a bad thing?” Distressed, the aunt contacted Jean’s parents, warning them of Jean’s communist leanings.

“I didn’t have any communist leanings,” Jean said. “I didn’t even know what it meant as an economic or social system, but I was wanting to learn. It was characteristic of those times that people’s fear was associated with the word, not with the ideas, and it had a very big impact on how people regarded Reed College, being an institution of questing.”

“My first math course was taught by Prof. Jack Dudman ’42 [mathematics 1953–85], who had just come back to Reed,” Jean said. “He had been a student of my grandfather. It was the last year when the introductory math course was taught from my grandfather’s book, and taught by someone who had studied with him. It was as if my grandfather was talking to me, and the whole thing made sense—an introduction to mathematical analysis. That’s probably why I continued to pursue the math courses.”

She also had a special regard for Prof. Joe Roberts [mathematics 1952–2014], whom the students referred to as “Mighty Joe Roberts,” because he was large and lanky, and strode down from Woodstock where he lived, to his morning classes.

“He had trouble scheduling a particular class because there was a conflict with every possible time during the regular day,” she remembered. “So, he decided that we were going to meet at 6:30 in the morning. It wasn’t very long before the size of the class was down to a number of students who could agree on a more popular time, which I thought was a brilliant solution to the problem. I had trouble doing anything before having coffee and breakfast, but going to Joe Roberts’ class was more important than my first cup of coffee. So, I was one of the finalists in that class!”

One of the few women in the mathematics department, for the most part Jean felt encouraged by professors who wanted to share their knowledge and love for a subject, regardless of a student’s gender. But one new mathematics instructor who dated Jean questioned her math trajectory. “Why do you want to do that?” he asked. “You’re just going to get married and raise kids.” Jean decided she was interested neither in him nor in what he thought.

In the mid ’50s the campus coffee shop was the cultural hub. Jean recalled that a tea bag cost five cents, but a cup of hot water was free and you could get five cups of tea from one bag. “You would gather in a booth with friends and people whose ideas you wanted to access and share a teabag around,” Jean said. “It seemed like a pretty good use of an hour, and for me, it was a haven of ideas.”

After graduating, she married Eric Terzaghi ’58. When he was accepted as a graduate student at the University of Oregon, Jean began working part time for a professor and taking biology classes. She got a master’s degree with a major in mathematics and a minor in biology, writing her thesis about statistical theory in connection with genetics. A teaching assistantship followed at Stanford University. By the time Jean got her PhD, she was divorced, had married Martial Thiebaux, and had her first child. She got a part-time job teaching at the University of Connecticut, turned her thesis into published papers, and launched her post-PhD career. In 1985, she and Martial divorced, after having five children: Tamara, Michael, Aaron, Raananna, and Laadan.

Intellectual curiosity—especially about issues involving the theory of evolution and the theory of inheritance—determined her career path. But Jean admitted that many of the driving forces that led to a successful career as an educator and statistician were instilled at Reed: “Keep your head down and work hard. Define what it is that is important to do. Figure out how to do it and then do it. And come up complete.”

“The word that I would use to characterize myself and what drives me, is restlessness,” she said. “That is a characteristic of Reed: ‘Don’t just accept what somebody says. Go and find out if it’s true. Don’t accept that somebody says it’s not possible. If it’s something that’s important to do, go and do it.’”

In 2007, Jean married Stephen Brown-Pearn, who survives her.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2017

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