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Nation loses great mathematician

Faculty and staff mourned the death of friend and colleague Ralph Faudree a professor of mathematics and one time provost at the University of Memphis.

Many at the U of M said Faudree’s passing left an unfillable void in the university’s department of mathematics.

Others said the nation lost one of its greatest mathematicians.

Faudree was the first person in his family to go to college. In a previous interview, Faudree explained that the highest level of schooling his parents had completed was eighth grade.

After graduating from Purdue University with a Ph.D. in mathematics, Faudree started teaching.

“Education opened so many doors for me,” Faudree said in 2012. “I certainly enjoy seeing those doors open for other people… To me, that's very rewarding."

He made Bluff City his permanent home in 1971 and became a professor at the U of M.

Faudree’s fondness of teaching was matched by his love of research. He often traveled the world to collaborate with great mathematicians. However, Faudree often brought those great thinkers back to the Mid-South.

Research Faudree and Dick Schelp did in Ramsey Theory attracted Paul Erdös, one the twentieth centuries most brilliant and eccentric mathematicians, to Memphis.

From 1974 to 1996 Erdös and Faudree collaboration lead to nearly 50 published works. The two were so close that Erdös often stayed at Faudree’s house four times a year. In an interview with Discover magazine, Faudree explained that these visits could be very trying.

“(Erdös would) want to work from 8:00 am until 1:30 am,” Faudree said in 1996. “Sure, we'd break for short meals, but we'd write on napkins and talk math the whole time. He'd stay a week or two and you'd collapse at the end… It didn't help my mathematical ability or stamina, but I invited other mathematicians to try."

Jerome Goldstein, a professor of mathematics, started work at the U of M a few years after Faudree and said he remembered those visits.

“Everyone said that Faudree’s wife was a saint for putting up with,” Goldstein said smiling a little.

Faudree may not have been as fanatical, but he was a serious researcher, Goldstein said.

“Not many people start an active research program in their 30s and are still going strong in their mid-70s,” Goldstein said. “But Ralph did. That put him in a small class of people--not just relative to Memphis but relative to the world.”

Faudree work resulted in more than 250 academic journal articles and made the university well known for graph theory. In 1994, he was given the Eminent Faculty Award—the highest honor the university bestowed on a faculty member.

While juggling research and teaching, Faudree would become chair of the Department of Mathematics for 12 years and later dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for five years.

Goldstein said even after Faudree become provost in 2001, he was never a “political animal.”

“He wasn’t out to improve his personal prestige, but the notoriety of the university,” Goldstein said. “He wasn’t selfish. He was interested in building up the department’s national exposure.”

Faudree’s passing came as a shock to many. Faudree died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, the Memphis police reported.

“Nobody had a clue this on the horizon,” Goldstein said. “Ralph seemed fine. He gained a little weight and then he lost it. He seemed cheerful. Everyone expected him to be teaching this semester like he did last… People maybe smart but when you get in a situation like this, we all feel dumb.

Irena Lasiecka, department of mathematics chair, said she had been in a meeting with him only six hours earlier.

“He wasn’t feeling well,” she said. “I tried not to make the meeting last too long. I went to my office to work… I got a phone call at 10:30 (pm) from his wife.”

Even in his last weeks, Faudree had been working at full capacity, Lasiecka said.

“He was in charge of preparing documents for the graduate program,” she said while gesturing to three large binders filled with organized papers. “I was surprised he handed these yesterday, because they weren’t due until February… I know this was important to him to do. This was a guesture from him—to leave everything in order before he left… he never took short cuts.”

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