Former math chairman remembered

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Efraim Armendariz, former chairman of the Department of Mathematics, died Wednesday after battling cancer. 

Under Armendariz’s leadership, which lasted from 1991 to 2007, the department was one of the few in the world to advance in the international ranking. He also established the Emerging Scholars Program, an honors program in which minority freshmen in the College of Natural Sciences, who are taking large foundation classes, meet in small groups with mentors and professors for social and academic activities. 

Uri Treisman, a mathematics and public affairs professor who created the program at the University of California-Berkeley, worked with Armendariz to create the program at UT.

“He understood that a large number of the students, with great talent, were not getting recruited into mathematics,” Treisman said. “He was interested in developing the next generation of mathematicians who represented the full diversity of the American body.”

Additionally, Armendariz developed the curriculum for and regularly taught two required mathematics courses with Mark Daniels, a fellow mathematics professor and the associate director of UTeach, a program with which Armendariz was also involved.

Armendariz, a first-generation college graduate, said in an autobiographical passage that while his family may have lacked formal education, it still valued knowledge.

“There was certainly a great deal of learning,” Armendariz wrote. “The value that [my parents] placed on acquisition of knowledge permeated our entire family life.” 

Armendariz’s father was a Presbyterian minister who received his training in Austin, and subsequently worked in Texas, California and Arizona. Because of a lack of funding for religious missions, during some summers the family did agricultural work in California’s Bay Area. 

Despite his family’s frequent moves, Armendariz wrote he only had academic troubles once — a “D” in mathematics while attending seventh grade in Albuquerque.

“The grade had little to with my abilities, but was a result of circumstances,” Armendariz wrote. “I entered after the school year had begun and thus was assigned to the back of the room. I did not realize that my eyesight was changing, a condition not diagnosed until the following year.”

After entering high school, Armendariz wrote about how the support of his math teacher, Dan Reeves, changed the course of his career. 

“Reeves had been expecting me to enroll in his college Algebra class. When he found that I had not done so, he took me in tow to the principal and changed my schedule, to include his course as well as physics,” Armendariz wrote. “Dan Reeves, who later moved to Sam Houston State University, was the first person who told me I should study mathematics, even though I didn’t know what that meant.”

Armendariz showed the same commitment in supporting his students — even beyond their work in mathematics — during his career as a professor, UT doctoral alumnus Frank Shirley said. Shirley met Armendariz as a freshman at UT, before transferring to Oberlin College in Ohio. After returning to UT to pursue a doctorate, Armendariz supervised Shirley’s dissertation, and the two discovered a common love of music.

“I learned we had this common interest first when I came to the oral final exam in that first algebra course, carrying my guitar from having needed it at another event that day,” Shirley said. “Rather than giving me any math problems to solve, he just wanted to hear me play the guitar and to talk about what we both liked to play.”

Armendariz is survived by his wife, Edna Armendariz, and his son and daughter. The family held a memorial service Saturday.