Charles Wexler did not believe in muddling classes with tests. Class time was for learning. Testing — a far lesser pursuit — was for Saturdays.
The legendary founding chairman of Arizona State University’s math department was respected for his intellectual and academic rigor by his colleagues. His students also respected him, mixed with a splash of fear.
Matt Hassett, now professor emeritus of mathematics at ASU, said a former student once told him that Wexler knew he was a B student and that's what he gave him — when he was the top student in the class.
“This was not a complaint, but a statement of affection and admiration,” added Hassett.
Wexler and his contributions to students, faculty and the university’s math program will be remembered at a 40th anniversary lunch celebration and awards ceremony Friday.
The Charles Wexler Awards honor an outstanding faculty member and an outstanding student with the Charles Wexler Teaching Award and Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize. The awards are the highest honor a student or faculty member can receive from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.
This year’s ceremony will bring together past winners from all over the country, ranging from a retired MetLife actuary to a data engineer at a Silicon Valley dot.com.
At the time of Wexler’s retirement, he had served 47 years, the longest period of faculty service in university history.
When he arrived from Harvard in 1930, he was the only math person on campus and had to teach all the math classes for 11 years. During the war years, Wexler started teaching mathematics to Army cadets while at the same time doing crypto-analysis work for the federal Intelligence Department. Pressed for time, he found help in an unlikely source: the school bandmaster, who put down the baton and picked up the chalk, stepping into the role of math teacher.
Back in 1956-1957, his son Jon Wexler was a sophomore at Arizona State College taking an advanced calculus course from his father.
“It was an interesting development,” Jon Wexler said. “In that course the first semester I got an A. The second semester I got a B. He was known as a hard grader. I had no problem with either grade.”
The next semester Jon Wexler took the first digital computer programming course ever offered at ASU. “I found it more interesting than advanced calculus,” he said.
The School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences is located in Wexler Hall, historically known as the A-Wing of the Physical Sciences Center. Wexler Hall was built in the late 1960s under then-department chair Evar Nering.
“When the mathematics building was completed, it was the gem of the campus,” Nering said in 2015. “In my opinion it still is.”
The building was dedicated in 1977, the year Wexler retired and later died.
Wexler was a lifetime learner.
“When I was a new young prof in 1966, he sat in on my graduate course in mathematical logic simply to learn something new,” Hassett said.
Late in life, Wexler became interested in meteorology, his son recalled, amassing a small library on the subject.
Wexler may have been a lion in the classroom, but he was a lamb at home, his son said.
“My mother and father had what I would say was an ideal marriage,” Jon Wexler said. “It lasted 50 years. I was their only child. Thinking back in marital situations there are oftentimes heated arguments, and that was never the case with my parents. To my knowledge, they never had heated arguments. They might have had soft arguments in the dark behind closed doors, but never heated arguments. That was not the case for many of my contemporaries. It was a fine model of a marriage.”
The Wexler awards were originated and endowed by the family. A suggestion from Professor Emeritus Alan Feldstein — who wanted to honor his colleague, “the late, great Professor Charles Wexler” — led to the addition of the student prize.
“Essentially, my mother and I had been thinking about a teaching award on an annual basis in honor of my father,” Jon Wexler said. “Alan suggested there be an undergraduate prize as well.”
Feldstein received his bachelor's in mathematics in 1954 after studying under Wexler. He earned his doctorate at UCLA. In 1970, he became professional colleagues with his former professor.
The award money never lasts, but for both student and teacher, it provides a boost in confidence that lasts for years.
“I think this is a point of pride for each of them (and an excellent item for their resumes),” said Al Boggess, current director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. “There is a cash prize associated to the award, but the cash is spent quickly whereas the pride of winning the top student award lasts a lifetime.”
Hassett, who was the Charles Wexler Teaching Award recipient in 1988, said the award affirmed the value of his commitment to teaching — a personal thing.
“It was nice to get it, but it did not seem to advance my career in terms of pay or promotion,” he said. “I am proud of it, and it hangs on my wall.”
David C. Kaspar is a research training group postdoc in the Division of Applied Mathematics at Brown University. He won the prize in 2007.
“The financial generosity of the award had immediate utility in the transition to graduate school, but the greatest impact was the Wexler Award's symbolizing a vote of confidence from ASU Mathematics,” Kaspar said. “Much of a mathematician's time is spent facing challenging problems, which may yield only after months (or more) of steady pressure, and maintaining confidence is vital for sustaining that effort in those times when progress is especially slow. I think this issue is most acute at the earliest stages of one's career, so I am grateful to the Wexler family and ASU Math for selecting me for this honor during this critical period.”
Steven Troxler won the prize in 2009. He is now a data platform engineer at Stitch Fix, a custom-clothing company based in San Francisco. The award inspired him to join a pro bono data-science organization.
“I'd say that the Charles Wexler award has been a big inspiration for me, both before and since receiving it,” Troxler said. “Before I earned the Wexler, I knew a lot of the previous winners and looked up to them. Their success guided me toward making the most of my time at ASU: Without earlier winners like Dave Kaspar to serve as role models, I might not have taken many of the graduate-level courses the department offered or done the undergraduate research and teaching that I was able to do. Since then, it's served as a reminder of how much I've been given by the amazing educators I've known, both at ASU and elsewhere, and how I want to give back.”
The careers of the five Wexler award winners coming to campus for the celebration reflect the diversity of jobs that mathematics and statistics, and the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, helps to train for, Boggess said.
“The careers of these five include an actuary, two academics, an engineer/data scientist, and an educator working for a nonprofit organization,” he said. “All these positions are (presumably) high-paying and professionally rewarding. Labor data indicate that ASU's reputation in mathematics and statistics among employers is very high. A few years ago, we were ranked No. 7 in the country for salary earnings for our graduates.”
The department has come a long way since it enlisted a bandleader to teach math. In 2008-09, it was renamed the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in recognition of a broad focus that encompasses theoretical and applied mathematics, statistics and mathematics education.
Four separate doctoral tracks in these disciplines were started about the same time. In many universities, these disciplines are housed in separate departments and even separate colleges. ASU’s school keeps these disciplines housed under the same umbrella in keeping with the university’s philosophy of fostering multi-disciplinary work between related areas of study.
The Wexler award remains an important tool in recruiting undergrad students.
“I think my father would be very pleased with that,” Jon Wexler said. “My father always enjoyed teaching courses to bright undergraduate students with an interest in mathematics. In that sense the awards have been more than I might have expected.”
Charles Wexler Awards 40th Anniversary Celebration
When: Friday, April 7. Meet-and-greet at 11:30 a.m. Program begins at 12:00 p.m.
Where: Old Main, Carson Ballroom, Tempe campus.
Details: Find more information on this and other Wexler Week events at https://math.asu.edu/about/events.
Top photo: Charles and Helen Wexler on their 50th wedding anniversary on Aug. 15, 1977, in Tempe.
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