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Leaving a Long Legacy Title


When Ray Mayer applied for a temporary faculty post at Reed in the mid-1970s, 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 one-year stint at Reed, he was offered a half-time position and then a full-time post. Twenty-eight 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 tight-knit 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 quarter-century. “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 ever-changing. 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 upper-level course in numerical analysis, and says the machines have forced mathematicians to think “much more algorithmically.”

His surroundings have evolved, too. He recalls his top-floor 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 seventeenth-century texts. In many ways, his post-retirement 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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