John Dyer-Bennet, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, who taught at Carleton from 1960 to 1993, died of cancer on March 19, 2002.
John was lured to Carleton from his position as Associate Professor of Mathematics at Purdue by the then Chairman of the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy, Kenneth O. May, and President Laurence McKinley Gould . The job of luring him to a liberal arts college from a school of engineering and agriculture could not have been very difficult, given John's ubiquitous academic interests. Indeed, at his graduation from the University of California at Berkeley in 1936, he was awarded the three-year Howison Fellowship, which required that the recipient be knowledgeable in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, physical and biological sciences, and have a reading knowledge of two languages; in addition to the Howison, John received Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma XI, and Pi Mu Epsilon honors, as well as Honors in Greek and Highest Honors in Mathematics. He was certainly a man of the liberal arts and a perfect fit for Carleton.
Born in England in 1915, John spent his first 5 years there and the next five years in Canada before his mother moved, with four sons and one daughter, back to her home city, Berkeley, California. But, for John, this moving about in his formative years wasn't finished. In 1929-31, he was in German public schools: the first year in Berlin and the next year in Goettingen. Returning to U.S., he finished high school in 1932 and entered the University of California, from which he graduated four years later. After a year as a teaching assistant and another year as the Howison Fellow, he left (with an M.A.) for Harvard. There, he received another master's degree, an A.M., in 1939 and a Ph. D. in 1940. His doctoral dissertation was written under the guidance of the renowned algebraist, Garrett Birkhoff. After John successfully defended his dissertation, Birkhoff stepped up and said, "Congratulations, Dr. Dyer-Bennet," to which John responded, "Thank you, Mr. Birkhoff," playing on the well-known fact that Birkhoff, although he had a towering reputation, held only a bachelor's degree. John couldn't forego the opportunity to give Birkhoff and some other of his Harvard professors a good laugh.
The following fall, he joined the faculty of Vanderbilt, but only for two quarters because he was drafted into the U.S. Army by March 1941. He entered the army as a Private and was commissioned after completing officers candidate school. He served in England, France and Germany, being in the first wave of ordnance troops to land in France after D-day. At the end of the war in Europe, he left active duty with the rank of First Lieutenant. However, he retained his commission in the Army Reserve.
John returned to Vanderbilt in 1945, but stayed only one year before accepting an assistant professorship at Purdue University. Five years later, during the Korean War, he was recalled to active duty to teach ordnance at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where he served fifteen months before returning to Purdue.
Not quite two years after completing his Korean tour of duty, in July of 1954 (the month of the Army-McCarthy hearings), John received a Letter of Allegations from the Department of the Army, essentially accusing him of being a security risk: his brother, sister, and mother were said to belong to various groups which had been listed as subversive by the U.S. Attorney General or the House Committee on Un-American Activities; his brother, Richard, a well-known singer, had sung a number of benefit performances (during World War II) for organizations such as those promoting American-Soviet friendship; he, John, "maintained sympathetic associations with two suspected communist sympathizers;" he, himself, was accused of making contributions to the National Sharecropper's Fund, one of whose founders was Frank Graham, a former president of the University of North Carolina and a high official of the United Nations.
The army was primarily asking him to resign his commission and to agree to accept a discharge under conditions other than honorable. Being offended and desiring to maintain his commission, John chose to defend himself before a board of officers. The army was neither prepared for nor comfortable with such a challenge. For example, they refused to divulge the names of the two "suspected communist sympathizers" with whom John had "maintained sympathetic associations" until John and his lawyer threatened to bring pressure from a U.S. Senator. In addition, the "allegations" were contained in an investigative report (reported by John to be an inch-and-a-half thick), a document that he was not permitted to see, except in the army's short summary. Incidentally, among the items included in the summary was that John had subscribed to The Nation and to Consumer Reports, had attended a meeting sponsored by the War Resistors League (a confidential informant reporting that John looked as though he agreed with the speaker), and that he said radical things at faculty meeting. This last charge was refuted by the Purdue President, stating "He said nothing in faculty meetings that I would call in any way subversive and, as a matter of fact, he said many useful things... I have valued his advice."
John's hearing took place in February 1955, and in May he received, in the mail, a general discharge under honorable conditions. His lawyer pointed out that this was not an honorable discharge and would mean, to anyone in the field of security, that he was discharged as a security risk. John was shocked. He then explored the possibility of an appeal and was told by a distinguished and sympathetic lawyer that he'd be facing a minimum cost of fifteen thousand (1955) dollars. So, he decided, instead, to write a careful complete account of the case and send it to the Secretary of the Army with copies to two Chairmen of Senate Committees that dealt with Army affairs and to his congressional representative. Approximately two weeks later, John received a reply giving him complete clearance with eligibility for recommissioning. Finally, he was recomissioned in the Army Reserve and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before his retirement.
Although John was engaged in several aspects of academic life, there was no dilettantism in any of these interests. He was serious about music, filling in as a violinist in the Carleton Orchestra, playing chamber music all of his life, and even teaching music appreciation courses at Purdue. He coached the Carleton soccer and tennis teams for 19 years. He was a strong defender of civil liberties, academic freedom and tenure, not only at Purdue and Carleton, but also on the national level. He served on the Board of Directors of the Indiana Civil Liberties Association and on the Executive Committee of the National Council of the AAUP. At Carleton, he was a President of the Faculty and also served on a Presidential Search Committee.
However, his primary love was classroom teaching. As a young man, he published several research papers, but later on his mathematical interests were almost exclusively concerned with teaching. Indeed, when he was asked, occasionally, whether he was a mathematician, he would reply that he was not, any longer. He would explain that a mathematician is one who proves theorems and that he was a teacher of mathematics. And a splendid teacher he was. His classes were carefully crafted and highly demanding; they were cherished by generations of students, whether mathematics was their primary interest or not. He set high standards for students and for himself, as well. His precise use of language, attention to detail, and careful choices of the best example possible to illustrate a concept served as a model of fine teaching. Inspired by his example, many of John's best students became mathematicians and mathematics educators.
Actually, John taught more than mathematics in his classes. He also taught logic, English and civility, but never with a hint of pedantry. Many students commented on how much they learned from his classes in spite of--or because of--his apparent, but not actual, toughness. What came through clearly was John's great concern for students. Actually, he kept in touch with perhaps a hundred or more of his former students from both Purdue and Carleton.
He officially retired in 1980 at age 65, but continued to teach half-time at the college, at no salary, until 1993. He also continued to contribute to the college in a variety of ways. He still accepted requests to serve as an ombudsman in some internal community disputes. Such requests came as a consequence of his reputation as the embodiment of fairness, as one who would render fair judgment even if it were to harm his own case.
John is survived by his wife Mary, whom he married in 1951, just prior to reentering the military in the Korean War, son David and his wife Pamela of Minneapolis, daughter Barbara and her fiance Mark Hunt of Renville, Minnesota, and sister Miriam May of Victoria, British Columbia.
(Prepared by Sy Schuster.)