Elsie Begle Interview, Part 1 of 3

  • David L. Roberts: This is David Roberts speaking with Mrs. Elsie Begle on April 19, 1999 in her home in Palo Alto, California. Mrs. Begle could you juststart by, just doing a sound check here, could you just state your name and the date and place of your birth? Mrs. Elsie Begle: Oh, what a horrible thought. [laughter] Elsie Begle and I live here in Palo Alto at 501 Forest, apartment 1002, and I was born in Ann Arbor July24, 1916. Roberts: I'd like to start by asking a little bit, before I ask the questions about your husband, a little bit about your own background. What was theeducational background of your parents? Begle: My mother was a graduate of the University of Michigan in 1905, and my father, and she went, my mother was one of eight sisters who went out to teachschool in the boonies, and she went to Two Harbors, Minnesota, where she met my father, who didn't go to college, but he worked with his stepfather in the ore trafficking from Two Harbors,Minnesota. My mother went there to teach and they fell in love and got married. My grandmother, my mother's mother, was a matriarch who had lost out on a chance to goto college because her rich uncle was going to send her, they lived in New York state, said Alanson, "You're not going to waste money educating a female, are you?" And that made my grandmotherso mad. She did marry and went to live in this little lumber town of Michigan where the rich uncle owned a lot of lumber. She had nine children, but she determinedthat they would have the education that she didn't. So when her uncle died and left her some money, she picked up and moved to Ann Arbor and bought a big house and put all her nine children through college.Two of them, one of them an aunt, and an uncle, went through U of M medical school. So we were deeply rooted in Ann Arbor. She insisted that my mother and father come to live with them. She wanted my father to go to college. But he didn'tthink that was, he thought that was sponging. So he would have been a good lawyer. We lived in my grandmother's house and we all did go to Ann Arbor and that's where I met Ed. His grandfather had been chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Michigan. He was blinded in a lab explosion when he bent over to check anexperiment that a graduate student was doing and it exploded. But he went on to become chairman of the chemistry department. So, Ed's mother's, that was Ed's mother's father, and so Michigan, and his father went to Michigan, so they lived in Greenwich, but he came out to college.And I met him my freshman year at Michigan. I graduated in 1937 and I was, had a lot of scholarships, this was the depths of the Depression. But I was mainly interested in newspaper work and I was the first woman managing editor at the Michigan Daily. So I fully intended to go on, in fact I wasoffered a job on the Detroit News, but my husband by that time was working with Ray Wilder and got his master's degree and had been accepted at Princeton and he wanted to get married. So I did, and we were married in 1937 just a couple months after my graduation, so we went to Princeton. Michigan is very deep in our roots, especially AnnArbor. His great great grandfather, or great great uncle, was one of the founders of the Michigan law school. All my family, my sister and brother, we all went to Ann Arbor. It was theDepression so there's no, I mean, we're lucky to go there. But anyway we spent four years in Princeton and Ed got his PhD with Solomon Lefschetz, in topology. I worked for a consumer research group, Opinion Research,and was very involved in that, in doing writing. So I've always worked when I could. Then he got his PhD in 1940 and he had an NSF for a year and we went back to Ann Arbor. But then he was offered a job at Yale, so we went to Yale. He had this strong sense of duty and commitment, so when Gus Hedlund was chairman of the Yale mathdepartment, and Al Tucker, who were very involved in the math society when it became apparent that mathematics education was really a disaster. They had a committee with a guy, Ed Douglas, head of the math dept. at Taft, the three of them, and they suggested that Ed should take over this SchoolMathematics project. And he was very interested in it. But he did not want to have it in New Haven, because he felt Yale was so elitist, and he was a Middlewesterner at heart as much as I, sohe did not want to keep the whole program. He had the first summer session in 1960 [actually it was 1958(DLR)], but then he decided that really Stanford was the perfect place as far as he wasconcerned. So he moved the whole project to Stanford in 1961. So that's how we ended up out here. But he always felt that the Ivy League schools, with the exception of Princeton, I mean Princeton had a strongmathematics domination, but so many of them were foreigners and actually escapees from Nazi Germany. They were Poles and Germans, so they were wonderful, but their focus was purely up in the clouds of research. Ed had begun to feel that he was reallyconcerned and interested in the teaching of mathematics. But that was scorned by the research mathematicians. It was sort of second rate. And that was I think a blow to his ego, but that was his deep a commitment. But anyway, I think that much to the president of Yale at that time was amazedthat anybody would leave Yale, but we did. And it was a much more, and California, particularly Palo Alto and Stanford, were cutting edge. They wanted the best for the public schools, and in NewEngland the best is in the private schools. So that's how we ended up in Palo Alto. Roberts: Could we go back a little bit to Ed's earlier education? Was he educated in public schools? Begle: No, he went to a private school in Greenwich [Connecticut]. What did they call it? Brunswick Academy. He did very well there, but he was very shy andvery wrapped up in, and he wasn't an outgoing person at all, so he was very ill at ease in the social, and his parents were very down to earth. They went to congregational church, and tried tosend their, well, no, they sent their children to private schools. Roberts: When did Ed start to get interested in mathematics? As an undergraduate at Michigan. Begle: Through Ray Wilder. Roberts: It was not until he got to Michigan? After. Begle: He was more interested in chemistry because his grandfather had been chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Michigan and had losthis eyesight in a lab explosion. So he came fully intended to be a chemist. Then I think his sophomore year he took a course with Ray Wilder and that just opened up the world of mathematics. Soit was Ray Wilder who was his genius. Roberts: Did... Begle: Ray Wilder was a topologist, yes. Roberts: Right, and Wilder was a student of R. L. Moore's at the University of Texas. Now do you know if, Moore and some of his students are noted for theirparticular teaching style, sometimes referred to as discovery learning, do you know whether Wilder employed that? Begle: I don't. I never heard any discussion of that with Ray Wilder. I don't think it was as much a teaching style at that point as it was topology. And hewas so, Wilder was a remarkable person. He had the gift of charm as well as scientific greatness. Anyway, he was Ed's mentor. And I don't know whether it was he who suggested that Ed should go to Princeton for graduate school. Probably, because he was hismain advisor. Roberts: Could he have stayed on at Michigan for a PhD, do you know? Begle: Well he just had his undergraduate degree. Actually, graduate students are encouraged to broaden their horizon at other universities. Roberts: But he felt it was advantageous to move on somewhere else? Begle: Well, in mathematics I think whatever your field is, you want to go where the best is and they thought it was Princeton, and so he went to Princeton.And he was Lefschetz's assistant. And so we got a full dose of European refugees. Sammy Eilenberg and [Witold] Hurewicz, and what's the Hungarian, Paul Erdos. They were all there. And Princeton had this wonderful mathematics facility, Fine Hall. So that was the center of the universe and all of these refugees were,Ed was very, well Erdos got to him, I remember Ed was reading a letter from his mother in Fine Hall and Erdos bent over, Erdos was so inquisitive he had to know everything about everybody, andso Ed folded the letter and put it back in his pocket and Erdos said, "Begle, don't be so rude." [laughter] But Erdos, when he came to Yale to visit, I remember we had had the math department over after his lecture and he walked into the house and he said "whereare the epsilons?" So he had to go wake up all the kids. They hadn't a clue of course what was happening. Roberts: Now did Ed keep in touch with Wilder in later years? Begle: Oh yes, he was close to him and sought his advice. Roberts: Did he consult him on educational issues later on that you know? Begle: I think he did. And I think there was a, he had a committee, what did they call it? They were really advisors and I'm sure that Ray Wilder and GusHedlund and Al Tucker. Al Tucker was a topologist. Ed was a very staunch friend of Al Tucker's. I was a very staunch friend of Alice Tucker, and when she left Al, actually it was all SMSG's doing really because at the first writing session in Boulder,Alice met Ed Beckenbach, from UCLA. And that flared into a romance, and she left Al and married Beckenbach. Ed thought that was outrageous. He was so livid. Alice was never very welcome as faras he was concerned. Roberts: How would you describe Ed's relationship with Lefschetz? Begle: In awe. [laughter] He was Lefschetz's chauffeur, flunky, he did everything including, you know Lefschetz had iron hands, that Ed was expected to bethere to put the sandwich in the crook of his metal hand at tea time. Now Lefschetz was a real character. Roberts: Did Ed keep in touch with Lefschetz in later years? Begle: Not so much. I can't remember when Lefschetz died. I don't think he was, I don't know whether he was not alive or not interested in education. I can'tremember. I kind of think he was dead by then because Ed got his PhD in 1940, and SMSG was 18 years later. I think probably Lefschetz was gone by then. [not so. Lefschetz died in 1972.(DLR)] But Tucker was a strong supporter and there was a split between AMS and MAA. And the research mathematicians looked down on MAA, but actually, as I said,perhaps Ed has his revenge, I don't know that he ever phrased it that way, but he never wanted any foreign trained mathematicians working on SMSG, nor Southerners. He thought Southerners were unable to grasp racial equality and he would have no, well, there were actually one or two exceptions. Ed Moise and Gail Young.But mostly he didn't ask Southerners to participate. And there was a wonderful guy who taught at Yale, a young instructor from, well actually they were from Mississippi. He was great, and I said, "Why don't youask Dick?" And he said, "Dick could never understand a totally race free curriculum." Roberts: Well let's see, are there any other people either at Princeton or Michigan who influenced Ed particularly? Begle: Well, I think Al Tucker did a lot and Ray Wilder. I think Hildebrandt to some extent. Although Hildebrandt was more austere and also I think Ed raninto the strong anti-educational tenets of the real research mathematicians, they thought it was infradig, so that he ran into that, I think, too, at Yale. He was never made a full professor atYale, and I think that hurt, and I think it was because the Yale department, with the exceptions of Charles Rickart, was more, had the Europeans. Ed could understand, one country that Ed didn'tapprove of educationally was England. Although he did become friendly with Bryan Thwaites. Do you know Bryan? Roberts: I've heard of him. Begle: Well he came to SMSG one summer and we visited with Thwaites. What did he call it? School SMP I think it was, in Britain. But I remember Ed was upsetbecause the British had a writing session in Africa in Kenya on the lake, is it Lake Kenya? Anyway, I know they, the thing he was upset about was so many of the good SMSG teachers and leaderswere thrilled with the idea of spending a hotsy totsy summer in Africa. I know Clarence Hargrove was there and the Richmonds. Don Richmond at Williams College was a great help, and a very sagementor. He and his wife became very close friends of ours. And in fact moved to Palo Alto when he, not when he first retired, but later. Roberts: Let's back up again a little bit. How was Ed's career affected by World War II? Begle: It wasn't really. We were at Yale and much to my astonishment, years later, he was a fellow at Berkeley College, and he, but really it was after thewar that we found that Berkeley College was a hotbed of OSS [Office of Strategic Services] types, and Leonard Doob and Chester Kerr all came to Yale after the war as fellows of BerkeleyCollege. But they had been, and Tom Mendenhall, who was the master of Berkeley College, had been very involved in OSS types. In fact the reason, the best thing that Yale did for Ed was ChesterKerr, who had been, I don't know, a spy during the war, was the editor of the Yale press, and they published all the SMSG texts. But Ed was asked to be a fellow of Berkeley. Years later itfinally dawned on me that I think that Tom Mendenhall, who was sort of the spy master, had thought that Ed would be a good prospect to be a spy. Well he would have been terrible. He would beunable to wine and dine and dissemble. I always laughed when I thought of all these spy guys. Roberts: But Ed during the war was not involved? Begle: He taught. No, he was not involved. A lot of people we knew were involved, and my sister was at Los Alamos, actually her husband was not amathematician or physicist, but his brother-in-law was, his brother-in-law was Bob Barher, and they brought Dave to Los Alamos to be the, to run the operational things. And my sister wouldwrite letters and say I ran into so and so and he said he remembered having dinner with you at Lahiere's [a Princeton restaurant]. Well of course I knew who it was, and Lahiere's was the onlyrestaurant at Princeton. I knew they were there and I knew there was a radiation lab and a proving grounds that a lot of the mathematicians were involved in. But Ed was not involved or asked tobe involved, I don't know why. He taught, Yale was, all the Yale students had gone off to war, so then they sent a lot of the young enlistees to Yale, the Army's ASTP- the Army Student TrainingProgram. So he taught them. He also, as I said, he became, well, I guess it wasn't until after the war that he became involved in mathematics administration. Robert: Now, did Ed enjoy doing pure mathematical research? Begle: He did, up to a point. But then he decided that he really wasn't good enough or pure enough, and also that he really, that his forte wasadministration. He was a very good administrator. But that wasn't enough to make him a full professor at Yale. He did a wonderful job, when, it was really chaos, to undertake a nationalmathematics educational program, so we went to Boulder the first summer, '59. Ed loved California. I was sort of reluctant to come to California. I thought that it was, all Californians that Ihad known in the Middlewest and the East were always complaining about the weather, and I said I'm so god damned sick of hearing about how perfect the weather is. So I came half-reluctantly.But it was great, and I really loved Palo Alto. Ed was a total democrat with a small "d." Although we did, and our children went to public schools although, we did send one daughter to, KentBob Rourke's school in Connecticut. Sally was very shy and she had a very popular older sister, and she was really, public schools were not for her. So we sent her, well anyway, East. With theidea that she would go to Stanford when she came back, which she did. Roberts: Back in 1954, I think it was, Ed wrote a calculus text [E. G. Begle, Introductory Calculus with Analytic Geometry (new York: Holt, Rinehart& Winston, 1954]. Do you recall anything about the writing of that book? Begle: Yes, in fact I was going to give you a copy except I can't find it. Yeah, he was in charge of the calculus program at Yale. He had started, there wasan old line guy whose name I can't remember, my memory is getting to be a sieve, anyway, Ed sort of took over the calculus and project teaching and was in charge of teaching calculus and hewrote the text book, which, I don't know think it was a rousing success, but it embodied the things that he thought were important. So he was interested in textbooks. Roberts: You've talked about how Ed decided that he was more adept at administration than at research... Begle: Well, I don't know that he decided it, but other people thought he was. So it was sort of, I don't think he really went out to do it. But I think healso felt his forte was not research, but it was administration. Roberts: When did he did he start to get interested in the education below the college level? Were there perhaps some experiences with your children that gothim interested? Begle: Our children were, or two of them, Bob Rourke was the one I was thinking of. I think he found near mathematics textbooks and programs were reallypretty bad. So he was judgmental, and so he was open to trying to do something about school mathematics. Yeah, certainly. But he also did not approve of the Yale private school elitism, so thatwas what made California particularly appealing to him, the idea of, but I don't think he had any idea how big a project it would be to try to reform education. And he was actually very shy,but other people who didn't know him mistook that shyness for coldness. He wasn't, but one of the trials and tribulations of getting involved in the school business was dealing with legislatorsat the state level who hadn't a clue about mathematics. But California was pretty enlightened. I think he felt that it was possible to make a difference in California, whereas it certainly wasnot in New England, and possibly the Middlewest. But he didn't like the Middlewestern