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Prof. Hubert (Hugh) Chrestenson [math 1957–90]

January 2, 2021, at home in Sublimity, Oregon.

Raised by his grandparents in Grandview, Washington, Prof. Chrestenson enlisted in the U.S. Navy after finishing high school and served in the Navy reserve, retiring with the rank of lieutenant commander. He married Doris Jean Carrell in 1947. After earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degreefrom Washington State College and a PhD in mathematics from the University of Oregon, he taught at Purdue University, and then at Whitman College for three years. In 1957, he began his 33-year career teaching mathematics at Reed.

“Hugh was probably the most charming, wonderful guy you’ll ever meet,” said Ken Belson ’87. “He had this wonderful way of staring at the board. You’d ask him a question and he’d put his hand on his forehead and look like he’d never heard that question before. Like ‘Wow! How are we gonna answer that question? Gee.’ He’d come out with a perfectly rational answer or description that just made so much sense. He’d scribble a little bit on the board, and it never failed—I was just completely struck by it—the class always would end right before the bell, within two seconds of the bell. It didn’t matter whether he had taken seven minutes of Q&A or two minutes. He somehow knew when we were getting it or not getting it on a given day and he would leave just enough room. He’d know we needed five minutes to ask extra questions or two minutes or seven minutes. He’d answer the last question, look at you (finger snap), and the bell would ring. There was no clock in the room. He never wore a watch. There was no warning bell or anything like that. But he was the most self-effacing, disarming professor, especially for math folks like myself who just really were intimidated.”

While at Reed, Chrestenson studied Banach algebra as a National Science Foundation Faculty Fellow at Yale University and served as a visiting professor of mathematics at the University of Ghana as a Fulbright grant recipient. He spent a sabbatical year in London. In addition to publishing articles in professional journals, he coedited A Century of Calculus: Part I 1894–1968.

Prof. Irena Swanson ’87, head of the mathematics department at Purdue University and a former professor at Reed, had Chrestenson for her first teacher as well as her thesis adviser. She recalled a class exercise where students were to prove that the field of complex numbers is not ordered.

“I was a novice at proof writing and needed help,” she said. “Mark Galassi ’87 and I were showing Hugh a step in our reasoning, prompting Hugh to exclaim in his humorous shocked voice that we cannot assume that -1 is smaller than 0. Prof. David Griffiths [physics 1978–2009] happened to be walking by and promptly told Mark and me to come instead to the physics department where they do know that -1 is smaller than 0. There were several ‘aha’ moments from this class, when things just fell together nicely and I could see the next glimpse of the universe. My teaching and my prompt grading have definitely been influenced by Hugh.”

It was a time, she remembered, when Reedies were advocating more for “free love” than matrimony, and one professor “spent precious class time expounding on how two mathematicians (mathematics students) shouldn’t get married, because it just won’t work. Hugh, instead, was very supportive of Steve Swanson ’84 and me getting married, as we did at the end of my junior year. As a wedding gift, Hugh gave us a wooden fruit bowl that he turned himself; we still have it, use it, and treasure it.”

Outside the classroom, Chrestenson fished for steelhead in the winters, and hiked and camped with his family. He and Doris built a rustic vacation cabin in the Trask River valley of Oregon and planted hundreds of trees on the surrounding land. Chrestenson enjoyed working in his woodshop, making toys for grandchildren and furniture and cedar chests for every branch of the family. After retiring in 1990, his first project was to build a retirement house in Forest Grove, Oregon.

“We helped with putting the roof on with a few other people,” Swanson recalled. “At some point, Hugh fell through the roof frame but caught himself by his elbows. The rest of us froze in inaction, but after a moment Hugh said, in his characteristic cool fashion: ‘Hm, I think I’ll need a ladder under my feet.’”

The surrounding 20 acres of forest land kept him busy planting trees and harvesting firewood. After completing the house, Chrestenson fulfilled a lifelong dream by learning to fly small aircraft. He crafted beer in the basement, moved books for the Forest Grove Library book sales, and enjoyed the outdoors. He and Doris took many trips, including to Vietnam for his son Dale’s wedding. In 2016, they moved to Sublimity, Oregon. He is survived by Doris, his wife of 73 years; his son Dale; his daughters, Susan Danielson and Mary Chrestenson-Becker; and his brothers, Chris and Ted Thompson.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2021

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