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Paul Sally


[Sharat Ganapati, The Chicago Maroon]

University of Chicago mathematician Paul Sally died last Monday at the age of 80. I got to spend time with him during my year in the department a few decades ago and have since been immensely fond of him. Aside from being a superb research mathematician, he was an inspiring teacher, a leader in mathematics education at all levels, one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, and a generous spirit.

From the university website:

Known for his contributions to the field of harmonic analysis and his passionate commitment to teaching, Prof. Paul J. Sally, Jr. built a legacy of love for mathematics at the University of Chicago for nearly 50 years. …

Sally taught at the University since 1965 and served as chairman of the mathematics department from 1977 to 1980. …

“Paul had a fierce belief in mathematics and in people,” wrote Professor Shmuel Weinberger, chair of mathematics, in a note to faculty. “I will miss him deeply.”

Sally’s impact in the classroom was legendary. He produced 19 PhD students and was director of Undergraduate Studies in the Mathematics Department for decades. He pioneered outreach programs in mathematics for elementary and secondary teachers and students. From 1983 to 1987, Sally served as the first director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, home of the nation’s most widely used university-developed mathematics curriculum. In 1992, he founded Seminars for Elementary Specialists and Mathematics Educators (SESAME), a first-of-its-kind program for elementary school teachers from Chicago Public Schools.

Diane Herrmann, the co-director of Undergraduate Studies in Mathematics and a Senior Lecturer, described Sally as “a force of nature.” Herrmann worked with Sally as a teacher, mentor and then as a colleague for the past 30 years.

“He was passionately interested in mathematical education at all levels,” said Herrmann, who with Sally co-founded the Young Scholars Program, a groundbreaking enrichment program for mathematically talented seventh through 12th graders.

One student who benefitted from the Young Scholars Program starting in seventh grade was Maryanthe Malliaris, who is now an assistant professor in UChicago’s department of mathematics. She recalled the experience as “exhilarating” and “decisive for my future in mathematics.”

“He had an incredible psychological astuteness, and a forceful clarity,” Malliaris wrote in an email. “He devoted a great deal of his time to creating possibilities for others. He concerned himself with the field as a whole. He would be there on Saturdays, on evenings, in the summer. His door was always open. He would show by example what it is to be a great human being.”

David Vogan, AB, SM, ’74, another former student of Sally’s, went on to be a Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the American Mathematical Society.

“What distinguished Paul Sally was not only his passion for mathematics, but also his love and care for everyone studying mathematics,” Vogan said. “He had an appreciation for all the different levels of mathematics. He was a remarkable individual who seemed to have an unlimited supply of energy.” …

“He overcame tremendous obstacles to provide education and outreach at the University, in the city of Chicago and nationally” said Robert Fefferman, the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics. “He lost both legs and lost his eyesight to childhood diabetes and it did not stop him at all.”

A Boston native, Paul was a high school basketball star. From a Boston Globe 2007 article:

Sally has, by all accounts, had an unconventional journey to the upper pinnacles of the mathematical world. His early numerical life was built around 2’s and 3’s on the basketball court – he starred at Boston College High School – and it wasn’t until he was nearly 30 that he found his step in the mathematics.

“I was very late by the standards of this field,” he says. “Mathematicians are supposed to do their best work at 21. When I was that age, I was still dribbling a basketball down Dorchester Avenue.”

After graduating from BC, Sally ambled around town, driving a red cab in Brookline, loading furniture in Downtown Crossing, teaching at BC High, playing hoops in “every gym in the city,” until, in 1957, he claims he sneaked in the door with the first class of graduate students at Brandeis University. That’s where he met his wife, Judy Sally, who recently retired as a math professor at Northwestern University – “When you’re at Brandeis, and you meet an Irish lass named Judith Flanagan Donovan, it’s all over,” he says. After finishing his doctorate, he made his way to the University of Chicago. He was awarded tenure in 1969, and has been there ever since.

Though he’s technically a research mathematician – he’s done important work in reductive groups, an algebraic concept – Sally’s passion has always been standing at the blackboard. He loves his students and, by all accounts, they adore him.

“He’s unique because he’s this big powerful man, but his hallmark is that he nurtures people,” said Phil Kutzko, a math professor at the University of Iowa … . “The jokes are funny, but the reason his students and colleagues love him is that he’s been there for people.”

While his health has repeatedly betrayed him – the macular degeneration in his right eye is now so bad that he’s legally blind – Sally, whose accent retains a strong trace of Roslindale, says he has no plans of slowing down.

“I’ll keep teaching as long as I can find the blackboard,” he says.

One more quote, from a 2009 interview of Paul (PS) by Supriya Sinhababu (SS) in the university student newspaper:

PS: Six-three, 200, is the best you could be, let me tell you. Well I can’t say that—when I was a senior in college, I was about six-three, 185, and since then I’ve sort of put it on. A lot of it’s muscle. No, I don’t want to be anything but six-three. Now the other side of that is, I don’t want to be five-eight. This really angers five-eight people when I say that, but I don’t want to be five-eight! I’ve been six-three my whole life. As a matter of fact, when I had my second leg cut off, my surgeon and prosthetist got together and said, “Look, Paul, if we lower your center of gravity, you’ll have much more balance.” I said, “Are you kidding me?” They really thought they were going to shorten my height by about five or six inches. When you learn to exist and address the world at a certain height—and six-three is a very nice height to address the world from—you want to stay there.

About an hour after our conversation, I went back to Paul Sally’s office to ask him a final question.

SS: You told me that you’re 95-percent blind. I imagine this requires you to do an enormous amount of math in your head.

PS: I do.

SS: How do you do that?

PS: I’m one powerful son of a bitch.

That he was.

Categories: Math, Obituary
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