Dr. Ben Fitzpatrick, Jr.


Ben's physical stature, manner of bearing, and formality of speech all contributed to the image of this omnipotent power who could, if he so chose, turn you to dust with a single glance or negative comment. Of course I never saw him use this power in a destructive way, but it was quickly apparent to me that here was an individual who had this type of power at his disposal.

The class itself was also very intimidating. I had cruised through undergraduate mathematics at Auburn without having been required to demonstrate any significant mathematical rigor or discipline. There was also a considerable cultural barrier to be overcome. I had spent my undergraduate years amongst the good ol' boys of the Auburn fraternity system. I had a great time, and I wouldn't take anything for those years, but they didn't exactly prepare me for the formality of speech and thought required in Ben's class. I was coming from an environment where I would have been immediately rushed to the infirmary if I had uttered two well constructed declarative sentences in a row.

Because of this poor background I had a hard time getting started in the class. But I soon learned that even extremely dumb mistakes at the board were met with very patient and polite corrections. Even though I hated to be shot down, I never felt that Ben ever used his considerable personal power to make me feel that my effort was unworthy or trivial. Actually, each corrective lesson delivered in this manner seemed to convey a subliminal message that he knew that I could move past this mistake and achieve greater things.

When I began to have some success in Ben's class I also learned that there would be no pats on the back or displays of emotion even when I solved a very difficult problem. That virtually eliminated the possibility of any slacking off and taking time to enjoy my personal victory. I was immediately on to the next problem.

The net effect of all this was that I can safely say that I have never been more motivated to please someone in my life. And, for me, it really was personal. I can't say that I fully understand it, even today. But the sense of personal accomplishment I felt after conquering one of the obstacles placed before me by this imposing figure was truly amazing.

I'm not really sure that I recognized at the time how much professional growth was resulting from having to attack these complex problems, solve them, and then, most importantly, describe their solutions in a logical and consistent fashion. I clearly understand this today. And I also believe that solid experience in the process described above is wonderful training for almost any profession in the world. That's why I will always credit Ben, his classes, and a number of other talented professors at Auburn with being greatly responsible for whatever success I may achieve.

So far I have only been describing the effects that Ben had on me as a teacher and motivator, because that was the extent of my initial contact. It would take me quite a while to discover the warmth, humor, and empathy beneath that formal classroom demeanor. I'm sure that was partly because I didn't join in right away with the social life in the department. I was still very involved with the social life in my fraternity, and it was at least two or three quarters before I started to become socially involved with the department. Of course that was a huge mistake on my part.

In the late sixties it was almost impossible to separate social and academic life in this dynamic department. The social interaction between faculty and graduate students was an integral part of the Auburn mathematics experience. Many "functions" were completely spontaneous and might start at a local watering hole, winding up early the next morning at the home of one of the professors. It was a wonderful time to be a graduate student.

As I became more involved in the social life of the department I began to see glimpses of the Ben that I would gradually come to know and respect as a friend. I say gradually because Ben was never one to become overly familiar with his graduate students, at least until they were quite a ways down the graduation path. And of course Ben was still an intimidating figure to me, even in social situations.

First of all, it was clear to me that he felt passionately about Auburn, mathematics, and anyone who might be considered an underdog in our society. These passions were not on public display for all to see, but quietly revealed through carefully reasoned comments and actions. His concern for the personal dignity of every human being was easily deduced by simply observing the way he treated those around him.

He was also one of the primary nerve centers of the department's social life. His personal presence seemed like a social glue that helped form the nucleus of most of the gatherings. To me he seemed to be the spiritual leader of this loosely organized band of professors and students who were thoroughly enjoying academic interactions that started in the classrooms and spilled over seamlessly into taverns and professors' homes.

Eventually, as I came closer to completing my degree, Ben began to loosen up a little with me. Although he could never be accused of being effusive, he started to reveal more of the great warmth and humor that are so familiar to those who know him well. I can remember him busting out laughing when I accidentally referred to a lemma as a subroutine (I was also working in the computer center at the time).

Ben's personal integrity and commitment were things that you just took for granted. It was inconceivable to me that he could ever act in an unprofessional or unethical manner. He was one of those rare people that you might disagree with but whose motives you would never question. He maintained that same integrity and commitment under heavy fire during some of the darkest days for the department and the university. He would sooner lose any battle than stoop to underhanded or unethical tactics.

Ben was also directly responsible for my continued involvement with the Department of Mathematics. After graduation I had chosen a position in computer software rather than mathematics. Although I am sure that this was a disappointment for him he never allowed me to see it. Several years later I was surprised when he called and asked me to serve on the Alumni Advisory Council for the College of Arts and Sciences. He insisted that I serve over my reservations that I had not been involved in academics for some time. That was almost 20 years ago and I have been able to keep up with events at Auburn and in the department through my visits to Auburn for the meetings of the council.

I will always be thankful to Ben for finding a way to keep me involved with Auburn and the department. Although alumni councils can be somewhat frustrating if you try to take them too seriously, to me it has always been worth the effort to come back because it has given me the chance to stay in touch with Ben and many other members of the department.

I am truly sorry that I won't be able to attend the memorial weekend. Even though I'm sure that Ben would be embarrassed by all of this attention I would hope that he could understand that we needed a chance to express our feelings towards him and the influence that he has had on all of our lives. Each of us might hope that we could live our life in such a way that we would be missed the way that Ben will be.

-- Jim Ott

I went to Auburn as a naive, unprepared undergraduate, majoring in liberal arts. Uncle Ben was there for me, checked on me periodically, and he and Aunt Margie invited me over for dinner often. I could drop by his office anytime just to say "hello," even though I had no intention of becoming a math major. He was always gracious and caring, interested in what I was doing. Sometime later in my college career, I was invited to a mathematics department get-together at Uncle Ben's home. I was quite intimidated -- here I was, intelligent but not mathematically inclined -- going to a place where some of the most brilliant mathematicians in the world were gathered. I was worried about what I would have to talk about -- surely everybody would discuss things like point sets and I'd be lost.

But when I got there, I was quite pleasantly surprised. Uncle Ben took great care to introduce me to everyone, and provided them with some bit of information about me as a "conversation starter." I found plenty to talk about with everyone there, topics such as classical music, classic Star Trek, movies, and novels.

In later years, after I graduated and my husband and I moved back to Nashville, we still would visit Uncle Ben and Aunt Margie and occasionally attend one of the math get-togethers if one had been planned while we were in Auburn. I always feel like part of the group now. Thank you, Uncle Ben!

-- Ann Fitzpatrick Gable

I am thankful for the life of Ben Fitzpatrick and for the opportunity to have known him. It is without doubt that my life would have been much different (and likely not as rewarding) without my knowing Ben. As a graduate student at Auburn both my fiscal and mental resources would get quite low from time to time but Ben always seemed to know when to offer a good meal and some encouragement. He was among the most unselfish people I have ever met and truly loved his mathematics and his students. And "his students" were far greater in number than just those who studied under him as he helped hundreds of us who never even had a class from him. I regret that I was not able to attend the Feb.10th weekend as I was out of the country but my heart is with you all who were there. I will miss him very much.

--Joe Hill

"I remember Ben Jr. as a wonderful generous gentle man who loved his family, his profession, old movies, all sorts of music, good books and good food. Ben was a wonderful cook--made hottest chili in ten states, the best smoked brisket outside of Texas. I believe that he had a love affair with life and lived his life to the fullest. He was an exceptional human being."

-- Charlotte Fitzpatrick

"I met Ben in September 1970 after coming to Auburn University specifically to study under him. He had been recommended to me by a friend and co-worker Eddie Reagh. I had discussed studying under Ben with R. L. Moore, and Dr. Moore agreed that Ben was an excellent choice. I had received my B. A. and M. A. in mathematics in 1965 and 1967, respectively, studying under Robert Greenwood at the University of Texas.

"Auburn was like a ghost town when I arrived on Campus the first week of September 1970. It was between quarters. When I dropped by the Mathematics Department and told them I had come to Auburn to study under Ben Fitzpatrick, the secretary called him at home. To my surprise, she told me that he was on his way to campus to greet me. I remember that he was a much younger man than I expected. He was only 38 years old at the time, just eleven years my senior.

"In his topology class I learned to think mathematically for the first time, although I already had a masters degree in the subject. It is difficult to describe the exhiliration felt by his students as we discovered mathematics under Ben's guidance.

"After graduating in 1975 and a temporary appointment at LSU, I returned to the Auburn area in 1976 to accept an appointment at Tuskegee University, where Margie Fitzpatrick taught.

"I last spoke to Ben Saturday afternoon September 11, 2000. I had called Margie to see how Ben was doing and to wish him well. He wanted to congratulate me on my promotion to the rank of Full Professor, so Margie put him on the phone. His voice was weak but he was upbeat and on the road to recovery. It was with great shock that I learned of his passing a short while later. I lost both a teacher and a friend.

"There are many good teachers, but few great ones. Ben was one of the great ones."

-- John W. Bales, Tuskegee University

"I was a sophomore at Auburn and newly married, when my husband got notice he had to go for his draft physical. This was 1968, and we were terrified he would be sent to Viet Nam. On the day he went for his physical, it was raining 'rakes and hoe handles' as my grandfather used to say. I was driving across campus when a tire blew. I tried to change it myself, but couldn't figure out my husband's car's strange jack. I ran into the nearest building, which happened to be the Math Building.

"There I ran into Ben, whom I knew through my brother in law, Sam Young. Bless Ben, he went out into that downpour and changed my tire. He was soaked to the skin by the time he was done. But he had made a terrible day a lot easier for me. I will never forget his kindness."

-- Mary Ann van Hartesveldt

"About 20 years ago when Ben and Margie were living in London, where Ben was a Visiting Professor at Chelsea College, my (then) husband Mike and I visited them for a week. Ben and Margie had spent the year carrying out a quality assessment on all the pubs in London, and chose their favorite to host a get-together for all their new friends and students in London. While anyone else would have simply reserved a few tables, Ben rented out the whole upstairs and put on a beautiful display of food and drink. When it came to mathematics, friends and beer, Ben did not think small."

-- Joy Reed, Oxford England

"Even in grade school, Ben had a flair for teaching. When he was about 12 years old, he endured (with some difficulty) a math teacher whose abilities weren't the greatest. After he corrected her several times during the course of a class period, she asked facetiously, 'Young man, would you like to teach the class?' He exclaimed 'Don't mind if I do!' and headed for the board. Instead of beginning his teaching career, he went to the principal's office.

"His mother asked why he couldn't just keep quiet, and he said that he couldn't allow the teacher to tell the student all that wrong stuff."

-- Daniel Fitzpatrick

"Uncle Ben once described to me his trip to the tailor on a visit to China. His host for the visit took him to the place, and there was a long line of locals waiting for service. The host negotiated to have Uncle Ben served ahead of all the people in line, an event which created a stir among the patrons. However, Uncle Ben's fitting became something of a spectator sport: as the tailor made measurements, the sizes were transmitted down the line, accompanied with many 'ooohs' and 'aaaahs.' Pictured in one of the suits he had made, Uncle Ben truly looked the part of chairman."

-- Ben G. Fitzpatrick

My Treasured Memories of Dr. Ben Fitzpatrick

By Jeffrey Yi-Lin Forrest (Also known as Yi Lin)

It was the summer of 1984 when I met Ben and Margie in Xi'an, China. As a graduate student of Professor Shu-Tang Wang, who published an important paper on sigma-additive spaces in Fundamenta Mathematicae in 1964, I was assigned the duty to be their tour guide in Xi'an region. Other than two of my English teachers, I had never talked to an American until then.

During their visit in Xi'an, Chinese Society of Mathematics just happened to have their 1984 annual conference held there. So, as recommended by Professor Shu-Tang Wang and others, Ben delivered an invited speech to an audience of mostly Chinese topologists. Fortunately, I was also a listener in the audience and learned some topology from Ben.

During the academic year 1984 - 1985, Mr. Kangping Wu, another graduate student of Professor Wang, who is currently a professor in economics at Tsinghua University, Beijing, one of the finest Chinese Universities, and I were busy in deciding who was going to America to study topology from Ben. After a few rounds of decisional changes, we made it final: I was going to the USA and Mr. Wu to the Institute of Mathematics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

On a sunny September day, 1985, I arrived at Auburn, Alabama. Out of their hospitality, Ben and Margie kept me as their guest in their home for a few days. Then, they arranged an apartment for me with all relevant details well planned, as parents would do to their child. Until today, I still remember the most, if not all, of the moments.

With Ben's patience, genuine guidance, and teaching, I was granted a Ph.D. degree in the summer of 1988. And, since then, I have been with Slippery Rock University. In the Fall of 1989, after my wife and I had our first child, Dillon, Ben came to visit us and gave an invited speech to the mathematics faculty here at the Rock. Here is a photo of Ben holding Dillon, vividly showing his caring characteristics.

Even though in the past nearly 13 years, I did not listen to Ben's lectures directly, (we did have some semi-regular communications and several meetings at various conferences), his teachings and guidance have surely been with me all the time. At this moment of celebrating Ben's life, I, as one of his students, would like to report to all Ben's friends how an effective teacher Ben had been and what profound impact Ben had had on me.

The following is my link, which might be of some interest to some friends of Ben.


"When I started work for Mr. Lucas at the Educational Advancement Foundation, I always addressed Ben as Dr. Fitzpatrick. But after just a few days of working together, Dr. Fitzpatrick said to me, "If it's okay with you, I would like to be called Ben." Shortly thereafter, Mr. Lucas overheard me refer to Dr. Fitzpatrick as Ben. Mr. Lucas told me that I should address all the PhD's with the respectful titles they had earned. So from that point on, I referred to Ben as Dr. Ben, and although Ben never had any knowledge of Mr. Lucas' comments to me, he must have surmised what had happened because he always addressed me as Miss Connie. Ben was a true gentlemen and one whom I greatly admired. It's hard for me to bid him farewell..."

-- Miss Connie

Everyone has people that have changed their lives for one reason or another. For me, Dr. Fitzpatrick certainly fits the description. I came to Auburn in June of 1990, having just graduated form High School, determined to become an Electrical Engineer. I had already taken Calculus and done very well on the AP exam and could have received credit for it at Auburn. However, I was strongly encouraged (by my mother Dr. Jane Upshaw formaly Jane Thomas) to retake calculus for one reason only; the opportunity to study under Dr. Fitzpatrick. It was the best decision I made at Auburn! It was the only 8:00 class in my 8 year stay at Auburn that I did not miss (voluntarily) and enjoyed waking up for. I learned a bunch more about calculus, but more importantly, thanks to his bonus problems which I worked on more than homework, I began to learn how to solve problems. He always knew how to keep me challenged and excited about math. I went on to take every course that I could from Dr. FItzpatrick. To make a long story short, thanks to lots of encouragement from Dr. Fitzpatrick and a few others like Dr. Brown, I eventually switched over to study mathematics and went on to receive my Bachelors and my Masters degrees at Auburn in mathematics..

One of my fondest memories is when I ran into Dr. Fitzpatrick in Parker hall after he had just returned to Auburn (I do not remember the year) but I said hello and he actually called me Mark instead of Mr. Thomas. I knew then that he was not just one of my prefessors, but also my friend.

-- Mark H. Thomas

Here is the story of Ben playing Santa Claus as he told it to us as well as we remember it. Additions and corrections are welcome:

Ben was at the Village Mall with one of his granddaughters. The granddaughter had gone off to a store by herself and was to return to meet Ben near the center of the mall. A woman ran up to Ben and pleaded with him. "Sir, can you help us out? We are in a fix. Can you play Santa Claus for us?" She went on to explain that she had brought a number of children to the mall to see Santa, and the Santa that she had hired had shown up drunk. She promised to pay him $5 per hour. He put on the Santa suit and proceeded to do the job. In a while the granddaughter returned, and Ben had a difficult time explaining to a bewildered granddaughter that this was indeed her grandfather and that she would have to wait for a while until he was through.

I do not think that he used the fake beard, that was how he got the job. I do not think that he accepted the $5 per hour either. He said that he could not stand to see the children disappointed.

--Sam and Diane Young

At first I didn't think I had anything to contribute because I didn't see my relationship with Ben as a personal one. But after a bit of retrospection, I don't see how it could be called anything else. I've known Ben ('Uncle' Ben for us) the better part of 45 years -- my entire life -- and in these past several weeks, I've come to see just how much Ben influenced my own life.

I don't feel that I knew Ben all that well, but perhaps I knew him better than I realize. I think probably to know my father is to know a lot about Ben. My father is one of Ben's many great admirers. Certainly to have grown up with my father is to have grown up with Ben. Ben and his family have been a constant presence for my entire life. It was a presence much greater than one would guess. We didn't really get together as families all that often, yet Ben regularly came up in conversation, and the signs of Ben were ever present -- draft beer regardless of any obstacle, jalapenos, absurdly hot chili, San Jacinto Day in the Heart of Dixie, smoked brisket, intellectual conversation just for the fun of it, the list seems endless.

As I look back on my own life, I see that my father's admiration of Ben influenced, directly or indirectly, where I grew up, where I went to college, how I thoroughly enjoyed college, how well I performed in my chosen curriculum (with fond thanks to Zener and Thaxton), who I worked for, where I now live, some of my world travels, and even, probably, who some of my in-laws are. In fact I can come up with but one aspect of my life that has not in one way or another been influenced by my father's admiration for Ben Fitzpatrick.

What a remarkable man.

--Ross Stocks

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Latest revision: 21 Nov. 2011