Remember Math Professor Bill Swift

The Wabash College community mourns the passing of Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Bill Swift, who died peacefully in his home last Thursday. The College welcomes comments from his former students and colleagues. Please post comments at the end of this story.

William Clement Swift was born March 17, 1928 in Lexington, Kentucky.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky and was inducted in Phi Beta Kappa. He received his Ph.D. from Kentucky and received the Gerard Swope Fellowship and the Margaret Voorhees Haggin Fellowship.

He was an instructor at Kentucky and Cornell University, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, and spent two years with the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Bill was also a sergeant in the United States Army, serving from 1946 through 1948 with the 1st Cavalry Division in Japan.

He came to Wabash in 1963 and taught mathematics until his retirement in 1990. He created the Mathematics Colloquium at the College, which remains the longest-running departmental seminar at Wabash. He was an active member of the American Mathematical Society and Mathematical Association of America, and held memberships in Sigma Pi Sigma, Pi Mu Epsilon, and the American Association of University Professors. He was also author of a mathematics textbook.

He and his wife of more than 50 years, Ellen, were tremendous community volunteers and leaders. Both were active in the Sugar Creek Players theater company and helped rebuild the Vanity Theater. Bill was also active in Boy Scouts and was a driving force behind the Sugar Creek Canoe Race. Swift was the public address announcer for a variety of Wabash sporting events, but was best known as the voice of the Wabash swimming and diving program.

In 1994, the National Association of Wabash Men honored Bill’s lifetime of service to the College by naming him an honorary alumnus.

For the last 40 years or more, Bill and Ellen hosted a “Derby Day” party, which annually was one of the largest gatherings of Wabash and community people. The party was purely social, but paid tribute to Bill and Ellen’s unwavering love of the Bluegrass State and did much to improve town-gown relations.

Bill is survived by his wife, Ellen, and their eight children — Tom, Bill, Jr., Mike, Matthew, Larry, Meg, Joe, and Jim.

Memorial Service arrangements are pending.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Remember Math Professor Bill Swift

  1. Bob Foote says:

    It was always fun talking will Bill. He was full of endless stories. But of course he could go on, and on (and on). Sometimes he was difficult to escape from, and one could be “trapped” in a corner at a party while Bill waxed seamlessly from one topic to the next. I learned it was good to meet him in the hallway on my way to class. That way I could have a pleasant five-to-ten minute conversation with him, and then have a polite way to excuse myself.
    Bill’s love of mathematics was never far below the surface. He was a rich storehouse of intriguing problems. Some of my favorite memories of him are when, in the middle of a lengthy hallway or party conversation, he would switch topics and say “Have I ever shown you the problem about …?” This would always be accompanied by a wonderful grin and twinkle in his eye. He would produce a barely sharpened pencil and a scrap of paper from some pocket, and proceed to share a mathematical gem. I often wished I could have taken notes, but that would have ruined the spontaneity. Sometimes I would manage to keep the scrap of paper, but I really wish I had Bill’s ability to simply carry good problems around in my head.
    There is one aspect of Bill’s career at Wabash that is less known outside of the math department: his hosting of the Wabash Functional Analysis Seminar. Functional analysis is a fairly narrow branch of research-level mathematics. Sometime in the late 1960s, there were a number of functional analysts at Purdue, IU, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They wanted to meet on a regular basis, but driving to each other’s campuses was a bit too far. They called the Wabash mathematics department wondering if the College would be willing to let them meet there. Bill was delighted, and he hosted it from its beginning until he retired in 1990.
    The seminar’s heyday was during the 1970s and 1980s. Aided by Bill’s good humor and Ellen’s cookies, it met on Saturdays once a month during the school year. Many well-known mathematicians gave cutting-edge talks in Baxter 111 during those years. There are not many functional analysts in the world, but for those whose careers spanned those two decades, if something took place at the Wabash Seminar, it was worth taking note of.
    In his autobiography, “I Want to be a Mathematician,” Paul Halmos (one of the founders of the Wabash Seminar and a household name to mathematicians worldwide) wrote some very kind paragraphs about Bill and the College. The seminar still meets, but the vast majority of its participants from Bill’s time have either retired or moved on to other schools. It now has two larger weekend meetings a year at IUPUI, and meets only two or three times a semester at the College.
    Robert Foote
    Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science

  2. David Smith says:

    Although I grew up with his son Mike (my condolences, Mike) I feel a great need for his leadership in boy scouts again…..
    He will be missed!
    Towny Dave

  3. Jim Correll says:

    Professor Swift was my advisor. I have an indelible memory of asking him for help (for which class I can’t remember now) and he invited me to his house that evening. When I arrived he directed me to his kitchen table and promptly offered me a beer. I can tell you that there are few things as surreal as sitting at Professor Swift’s kitchen table, trying to grasp some higher mathematics concept while drinking an Old Milwaukee.
    So, if you were influenced at all by Professor Swift during your time at Wabash, please make it a point this weekend to find a six pack of Old Milwaukee somewhere and toast a good ol’ Wabash man!
    Jim Correll
    Class of 1988

  4. Al Hart says:

    Dr. Swift was responsible for my learning about Wabash College and my decision to attend Wabash. We started our relationship by working on a Mathematics problem which brought us together but which also highlighted the differences in philosophy between us over the years. In 1964 Dr. Swift was hosting a Math Meeting every week and welcomed attendance by local High School students (of which I was one). He presented a problem to determine how many different ways a fly could traverse an octahedron by walking from one face to another and continuing straight on, or turning right of left.
    Dr. Swift saw it as a classical divide, analyze, and conquer problem. I saw it as a great “Monte Carlo” problem for the computer. Wabash had recently acquired an IBM 1620 and I was using it to learn about computers. I programmed it to try every possible way to cross the edges and select one of the 3 possibilities on each face for continuing. I returned to the Math Meeting the next week with the solution.
    Dr. Swift was amazed that a High School student was the only one able to solve his problem, but perhaps disappointed that the computer was able to create a brute force solution rather than using the analytic principles of Mathematics to solve the problem.
    However, he considered that discovering a local high school student with mathematical abilities and convincing him to join Wabash was one of his successes in life. While I attended Wabash, Dr. Swift took the time to advise me on my studies, worked with me in an Independent Study course studying Topology and presided over my final Oral Examination.
    Over the years I would return to the campus and visit with Dr Swift. He was always welcoming to me. Letting me know about his concerns – mostly about finding better ways to teach Mathematics and the progress on his textbook, Principles of Finite Mathematics, which he published,, with Dr. David Wilson, in 1977.
    I would seeks his help with the problems I was running into in the world of Computer Programming – especially one having to do with reducing piping networks into closed loops for analysis – which was a natural extension of the octahedron problem and which he worked with me try to solve. The solution to this problem was crucial to a program I was developing to calculate and design Fire Protection Sprinkler Systems.
    One section in his textbook – the Gambler’s Ruin discussion – was interesting to me because I was discovering the lure of gambling at the time when the textbook was published. The discussion demonstrated how quickly a very small percentage in favor of the house would wipe out the player’s bankroll. I spent a long time trying to discover an error in his calculations. But the inevitability of the results was irrefutable.
    I will always owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Swift, Dr. Paul Mielke, Dr. Wilson and the other Wabash Professors who took a shy, insecure Crawfordsville High School student, showed him a way to improve his Mathematical talents, welcomed him to the Wabash Community and launched him into his future career.

  5. I remember Bill Swift fondly. I was at Wabash 1969-1973. Dr Swift had a captivating way and a warm, genuine, caring personality. He was a true gentleman.
    In my freshman year, Dr Swift almost convinced me to major in mathematics. His love for math was infectious, but my love for politics, economics and history sent me in another direction. Although I did not become a math major I have always had an appreciation of mathematics– in large part because of Bill Swift. (I recommend Marcus du Sautoy’s boooks The Music of the Primes and his Symmetry as enjoyable reads by the way).
    Dr Swift had a gift of the power of persuasion and when he asked me to work with the Boy Scout troop he led in Crawfordsville, I could not resist his request. I served as an assistant scoutmaster to his Troop during my years at Wabash. I got to meet several of his wonderful children (those in the Troop and others) and remember those times fondly now almost 40 years later!
    Thus, Bill Swift, like so many other Wabash professors I had the privilege of knowing and being taught by, had a formative and lasting effect on me. He was more than a “Little” Giant!
    Bruce Nelson Ong
    Associate Professor of Political Science, The College of New Rochelle

  6. Nick Pitz '68 says:

    Professor Swift was a teacher who loved his subject and communicated that love so effectively to his students. Although I was destined to be a humanities major, he made me appreciate mathematics as a system and mode of thinking. He and his wife have obviously left an indelible mark on Wabash College and Crawfordsville.
    Condolences to his entire family.

  7. Gary Reamey says:

    Bill, was my freshman advisor. I sat down with him with the thought that I would be a lawyer and at the end of our first session I was taking classes to be a doctor. Go figure. He was very likeable and would always take time to explain the finer points of a finite structure and linear methods problem. I became a stock broker after Wabash..Bill thought I should have been a carpenter like my father. We became good friends during my Wabash years. I remember attending one of the derby parties with Dean Powell’s daughter Karen. Bill was quick to offer a hand shake and a drink! I will miss his upbeat smile and positive personality. He was a friend when I needed a friend. He was a good Wabash man.
    Gary Reamey Wabash’77

  8. Ramona Zachary says:

    All my memories of Bill are of him smiling. I performed in the Sugar Creek Players production of ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ with Bill as my father. He was perfect for the part. Tomorrow I am going to find the VHS tape of the show and watch.
    One Derby Day he said to me ,” Ramona, I had several sons, and I thought sure you’d find one of them to marry.” I loved Bill for lots of reasons, but mainly because he was truly genuine and never compromised his integrity.
    Ramona Zachary

  9. Steve Ramsey '85 says:

    Professor Swift was simply a class act. As a math major, I was privileged to have had Professor Swift in many classes along with some other top-notch professors – Wilson, Gold and Mielke. It was the perfect time to be at Wabash. One couldn’t have asked for better instructors, both inside and outside the classroom.
    My fondest memory of Professor Swift was spring of my senior year. He was one of the professors for my oral comps. One of the other professors (one from neither my major or minor and to remain unnamed) asked one of the strangest questions of me. He asked me to define structuralism and relate it to my experience at Wabash. Having never taken a philosophy course in my life (and never plan to – sorry philosophy majors), this one had me stumped. After a few seconds of silence, Professor Swift, noticing that I was perplexed, looked over at this gentleman and said, “What kind of a silly question is that?” Needless to say, it lightened things up and allowed me to ultimately muddle through the question with a response that would probably leave most people laughing for hours. I’ll never forget that moment!
    Professor Swift was a gifted mathematician and instructor. Undoubtedly those traits carried over to his roles as husband, father, citizen and friend. He simply had an uncanny, no-nonsense approach to life. I liked that. Professor Swift will be missed.
    Steven A. Ramsey ’85

  10. Omar Hayat says:

    My condolence to Ellen and family. I had taken a class with Dr. Swift my sophomore year and found his unique teaching style captivating and very educational. He was a pleasant and always approachable. I will miss him tremendously.