Unto the Breach with Professor Tucker

The 4th Floor of Rowland Hall smells inert, as if it were the outcome of the multiple laboratories there. On one inert end are offices of the UCI faculty of mathematics, one of which belongs to Professor Howard G. Tucker, the man known for and often spotted during his daily afternoon walks around Ring Road.

Patrick Herrin | Photography Intern

Patrick Herrin | Photography Intern

Professor Tucker walks with a cane and pauses with every step as if taking in the ambience for the first time, even though he has been walking on Ring Road before any of the UCI undergraduates were even born. He has been a professor of mathematics at UCI since 1968 with an expertise in statistics and probability, as evidenced by the myriad books and journals in his office.

On Oct. 3, he turned 91 and arrived in his office promptly at 9.

His regime and routine reflect his service in the U.S. Navy as a radio technician during World War II, but his Midwestern mannerisms only prove that the Navy did not harden him.

A bulletin board hangs in his office with black-and-white pictures and documents of his students and colleagues. He calls it the “memory board.”  On the memory board is a Dickinson Elementary School certificate for “Outstanding Math Student” given to one “David Croskrey” in kindergarten. When asked about it, his face lit up as if he were hoping for the topic to be broached. The certificate is one of his grandsons’ and has been on the memory board for 22 years.

“It’d make a good topic of conversation,” he said.

But no one had asked about it before, which is a cosmic irony he realized and laughed at heartily. He retired in 2007 and has been a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics since. The title is not just honorary; he still teaches and has daily office hours except on Sunday.

His workload now consists of his own research in “simulation methods to obtain p-values” and regular visits from students seeking help in what he describes as “abstractions in mathematics.”

“When you are this age, you are almost invisible,” he said. But he does not desire attention; he simply enjoys the opportunity to help.  A group of students visit Professor Tucker regularly not just to keep him company but also to learn mathematics from him.

One of the students is Gustavo Reyes, who took Math 13 with Professor Tucker in Fall of 2011 and has been visiting him since.

“UCI has a diverse faculty in that some care for the students and others for their research. Among those who care for the students, Dr. Howard Tucker reigns above all,” he said.

Professors are, by the nature of their job as instructors, intimidating. No matter how much they urge their students to ask questions or interact in class, it is often their personality that makes them congenial toward students.

Professor Tucker is congenial even toward a relative stranger hoping to profile him for the New University, which should not be dismissed as a characteristic of his age. Talking with him, one realizes he has always been affable.  And the students reciprocate that affability: a few of them made plans to celebrate his 91st birthday in his office.

Neither age nor retirement has made him complacent. He is currently teaching a Math 199A Special Studies research class for which he is brushing up on material himself.

Even though he makes his living with mathematics, his interests are diverse. He is well read and overtly political for a mathematician. Some of his memorable reading experiences date back to his service in the Navy.

He recalls, “I read ‘Les Misérables’ in a temporary jungle hospital with my skin falling off.”

Works of literature sublimate his life. For instance, going to funerals only refreshes Professor Tucker’s memory of Father Zosima’s death scene in the novel “The Brothers Karamazov.”

Equally comprehensive is his understanding of Latin American politics and government uprisings.

Of course, none of these details are known to those who see Professor Tucker walk Ring Road with a hunched posture, the result of age and life-long introspection on theorems.

To a stranger, he physically resembles the old man from the Disney movie “Up.” But to those fortunate enough to know him, he is a modest mathematician happy to reveal the beauty of a mathematical proof to even a layman.

In honor of his work and teaching at UCI, the faculty of mathematics awards “an outstanding graduating mathematics student” the Howard Tucker Award. But the sentimental mark of his continuing legacy is in his students whom he continues to educate.

On the white board in his office a student had scribbled: “Youre pretty amazing.”

He walked toward the board, unable to read from a distance due to his weak eyesight, and commented on the grammatical error and walked back to his chair with a smile.