Gordon Ernest Keller, by Jen Bowen

Gordon Ernest Keller (1939-2003)

Age 64, born on January 31, 1939 in Buffalo, NY and raised in Depew, NY, died on July 5, 2003, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Gordon received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from California Institute of Technology in 1965. In 1970, he joined the Mathematics faculty of the University of Virginia where he taught, as Professor, until the time of his death. Gordon will be laid to rest in The University Columbarium at the University of Virginia Cemetery on Tuesday, July 8. 

In August 2000, I quite literally ran into Mr.[1] Keller the day after I received word that I passed the last of my comprehensive exams toward my PhD. The first day that I was ‘officially’ looking for a dissertation advisor. He said, “If you’d like to do a dissertation reading course with me, come see me. I like the way you work!”

Mr. Keller was a funny guy – king of math and dad jokes. He was a big guy who drove a red Chrysler Neon. He would generally be in his office late, only tearing himself away from work when his family called to ask if he was coming home for dinner. He was infamous for a lengthy and challenging set of optimization and related rates word problems he assigned in Calculus to his undergraduates. He was infamous for the group work proofs he made each class of graduate algebra students complete, especially the proof of why every group of order 168 was simple. He had the best recommendations on local restaurants, and especially barbecue – and you trusted every single one of them. He made the best five-ingredient chili in central Virginia (it involved cocoa powder and applesauce and was divine!) I treasure that recipe to this day.

He was a low-key advisor, not always prepared for our meetings. He preferred that I steered the conversation and the speed of my research work. We met weekly, and I always wanted to impress him. I gave my oral qualifying exam on several articles we were working through in 2000. That fall, Mr. Keller let me know that he had prostate cancer.

I hadn’t ever known anyone with cancer. I didn’t know what that meant. Did this mean he would die? How long would he have? I had a very professional relationship with Mr. Keller and his guidance meant my success in attaining a PhD in mathematics. So many questions. At least I had filed the paperwork with the university to grant my MS in Mathematics, my Plan B?

We didn’t speak much about his health. There was a surgery, some recovery, there was chemotherapy and he lost quite a bit of weight. We met throughout this time; his family brought a twin bed into his office so that he could take naps during his workday. I probably should have seen the writing on the wall.

In late June 2003, I served as a TA for the Carleton College Summer Mathematics Program for Women. I went to meet with Mr. Keller one final time before I drove to Minnesota for a month. I knocked at the door, there was snoring on the other side, but then he woke up and I heard him fall. I heard his shouts from beyond the locked door and ran to get help. Mr. Keller went to the hospital that afternoon. I left for Minnesota the following day. I got the call that he passed away on July 5, 2003.

When I returned for classes in the fall of 2003, I got an email from Mr. Faulkner. Mr. Faulkner and Mr. Keller were what appeared to be best friends. I always saw them at women’s basketball games together in their season-ticket seats. Mr. Faulkner let me know that he promised Mr. Keller that he would help me finish my dissertation. When I provided him the work I had completed, we realized it wasn’t much. Mr. Keller’s illness had affected us both. I had to start from scratch, in a tweaked area that Mr. Faulkner knew better. This was at the start of my sixth year, and graduate student funding technically ended in the fifth year. The mathematics department continued my funding until I finished my PhD on May 22, 2005.

Mr. Faulkner and I grieved together. I visited him each time I was at a women’s basketball game to say hello. We still exchange holiday cards to fill each other in on our adventures. I’m not much of a philanthropist, but I give annually back to the Mathematics Department in honor of the Gordon E. Keller Mathematics Majors Dinner. This brings me peace, but also sadness. Mr. Keller was a quirky university mathematics professor who cared deeply for undergraduates. I wish I could have have said goodbye.

[1] At The University of Virginia, University faculty are referred to as Mr. or Mrs. instead of Doctor, even if they have a Ph.D. Students and faculty historically addressed each other in this manner as well.

Jen Bowen is an associate editor of the Living Proof blog.

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2 Responses to Gordon Ernest Keller, by Jen Bowen

  1. Barbara J. Hampton says:

    Jen, I can’t believe how much your experience is parallel to our Jenny’s. Her first advisor died during year 2 of her research, she stayed another year to help the student a year ahead of her finish (the ones behind her left right away), joined another research group whose hot-shot head announced 3 weeks later he was moving to UC Irvine. She decided not to go with him and finally found a home in the chemistry department with an advisor who helped her get through with a bit of speed to make up some of that lost time. She returned to his lab during her only sabbatical. Such winding paths!

  2. Pat Scholtz says:

    Hello Jen,

    Your story about your path to your Ph.D. is beautifully told in your blog. Life often seems to hand us sidetracks but yours led to success.

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