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Wednesday January 19, 2011

Math came naturally to professor

Specialist in an arcane branch of mathematics also enjoyed working to promote world peace

Special to The Globe and Mail

If the Hartford Insurance Co., where he was employed, had been more tolerant of his eccentricities, Terry Gardner might never have become a noted mathematics professor and peace activist at the University of Toronto.

Living just outside Hartford, Conn., in the 1950s, with a wife and three small daughters to support, Gardner was making a name for himself as an actuary at the insurance firm when his boss called him in. He advised Gardner that if he wished to rise in the company, he should stop whistling, not wear a knitted hat, and stop commuting to work on his bicycle. He should buy a car. The boss even told him the make of car a rising star in the insurance business was expected to drive.

The result was that Gardner, a committed cyclist, whistler and knit-cap wearer, quit the job. After a stint teaching at the Oakwood School, a Quaker institution in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he went back to university (he already had a BA in philosophy and education from Antioch College) and in 1964, obtained his PhD in mathematics from Columbia University.

Math came naturally to Gardner, who died of dementia in Toronto on Dec. 22, at the age of 84.

According to his wife Constance, he was asked upon applying to study math at the graduate level, what prerequisite courses he had taken. "None of them," he answered.

"But I have read van der Waerden," he added, referring to the Dutch mathematician famous for his theorem concerning the basic structure of integers.

Columbia accepted him.

Gardner specialized in an arcane branch of math called C* algebras (pronounced C-star), an area of research in functional analysis. They were first considered primarily for their use in quantum mechanics to model observable physical phenomena. In the 1930s, the great Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann (later a key member of the Manhattan project that created the atomic bomb) attempted to develop a general framework for these algebras. During his first decade at U of T, Gardner ran a seminar in this subject with von Neumann's former student at Princeton University, the Canadian mathematician Israel Halperin.

"There are just a few centres for the study of C* algebras and U of T is now one of them," explained Emeritus Professor Chandler Davis, a former colleague of Gardner. Davis had been Gardner's teacher at Columbia in New York when Gardner began his Master's degree via night classes. After Davis obtained a teaching post in Canada in 1962, he encouraged Gardner to follow in 1966.

Lawrence Terrell Gardner was one of seven children born in 1926, in Cleveland, into a talented family. His father, Lawrence Gardner Sr., was an expert in paints and varnishes who worked for the de Voe & Reynolds paint company and sang in choirs. His mother Caroline was a painter, sculptor, church organist and first-rate homemaker. Whenever the family got together they sang Bach chorales, 16th-century rounds or other multi-part harmonies. Singing in choirs became Terry Gardner's lifelong avocation; he sang in the Boston Symphony chorus at Tanglewood in 1951, with the Camerata Singers in New York while studying at Columbia, and later with the Toronto Chamber Choir (he was a bass).

He entered Yale but left after one term to join the U.S. Navy, where he spent the war years as an instructor in radar and sonar. During a leave, he visited his sister Fay, who was working in a mental hospital near Philadelphia along with some Quaker conscientious objectors, who impressed Gardner. One of them advised him to go to Antioch, which he did once the war ended.

In the early 1950s, after he obtained his degree, he taught math at a Quaker school and fell in love with chemistry teacher Eleanor (Holly) Hollinger. They married and had three daughters - Molly, Kate and Susan.

By the time Gardner obtained his doctorate from Columbia in 1964, Holly had been diagnosed with incurable non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. About a year after the family moved to Toronto, while the three girls were at summer camp, Gardner - knowing it was his last chance - took Holly on a long planned trip to Italy. They flew home sooner than expected because Holly was dying. She passed away the day before her children returned from camp.

At Columbia, Gardner had met Constance Moore, then the wife of a fellow grad student. She had divorced in 1962 and was teaching English at the same Quaker school in Pennsylvania where Gardner had once taught math. They married and Moore moved to Toronto in 1968. She shared all his interests and convictions and helped him raise the girls. Gardner had his own health issues, including three bouts of cancer of the jaw (he had smoked a pipe since he was 17), and from the 1980s, a gradual cognitive decline that only those closest to him noticed. He could publish three papers in one year but later he "lost the spark," according to his wife. In 2003, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

His work for world peace, however, never faltered. In 1983, he was the co-founder of Scientists for Peace, an international organization; was the founder of the Toronto branch of the United Campuses Against Nuclear War; was invited into the Canadian Pugwash Group; was a member of the Group of 78 and Veterans Against Nuclear Arms.

Chandler Davis, who worked with Gardner in the cause of peace, said, "We put on pressure and worked quietly behind the scenes and we played a part in restraining the Canadian government from excessive participation in military adventures."

He helped organize a lecture series on peace at U of T, which lead to a course in peace studies in 1985- one of the first such courses anywhere. The program is now housed on campus within the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Gardner leaves his wife Constance, his daughters Molly and Kate, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His daughter Susan died in 2006.

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