Seymour (Sy) Schuster, age 94, of Northfield, tested positive for Covid-19 on October 28 and died at Three Links Care Center in the early hours of October 31. His son, daughter, former daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren each were permitted time with him the day before his death.
Sy, along with his wife Marilyn, came to Northfield in 1958 as a visiting professor on leave from the Brooklyn Polytechnical Institute. Sy wound up accepting Carleton College’s offers, first to extend his stay from one to two semesters, then to join its faculty in the math department. He retired as the Laird Professor of Mathematics and the Liberal Arts, Emeritus, in 1994. Throughout his time at Carleton, and beyond, Sy pursued in equal measures his passions for mathematics, teaching, social activism, grass-roots politics, art, music and fly-fishing.
Born July 31, 1926, in the Bronx, Sy grew up in Spring Valley, N.Y. As a teenager, he worked summers as a lifeguard and waiter at area resorts. Days before his 18th birthday, Sy enlisted in the Naval Reserve. He trained as a hospital corpsman while attending Pennsylvania State University and competing on its varsity soccer and wrestling teams. Sy received an honorable discharge in 1946 and graduated from Penn State in 1947. After earning a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1948, Sy began his pursuit of a doctorate degree as a postgraduate fellow at the University of Toronto, ultimately receiving a Ph.D. in 1953 from Penn State.
Sy’s many contributions to the field of mathematics include authoring Elementary Vector Geometry and Prelude to Analysis (with Paul Rosenbloom). In addition to publishing 30 papers and being cited more than 130 times, he served in editorial capacities for Pi Mu Epsilon, American Mathematical Monthly and other mathematics journals.
As much as the field itself, it was the teaching of math that excited Sy. And, as energized as he was by the gifted math majors taking combinatorics, graph theory and his other advanced courses, Sy took special pleasure in guiding non-majors through their distribution requirements. Typical remembrances by former students include: “Sy taught the entry-level class with such patience and care [even though] few, if any, of the students would be going on to major in math”; “Sy’s kindness, humor and humanity helped me to relax [and] his excellence as a teacher helped me learn”; and “he would not let me drop calculus and instead made me come to him for tutoring every week.” Post-retirement, Sy’s varied interests and love of teaching led him to create and teach freshman seminars on the intersection of art and math (with Tim Lloyd) and on the history of free speech.
Concerned about the preparation available to elementary and secondary school math teachers, Sy left Carleton in 1963 to create and lead the College Geometry Project. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project brought together the disparate talents of artists, filmmakers and, according to a 2008 Mathematical Association of America review, “an all-star cast of geometers.” Sy’s team spent four years producing 12 films aimed at improving elementary and secondary math curricula. In 1968, two films, Isometries and Symmetries of the Cube each won Golden Eagle Awards at the Cine Film Festival in Washington, D.C. That same year, Symmetries won first prize at the Venice-Padua Festival.
Vying with academia for Sy’s attention throughout his life was the promotion of civil rights and social justice. Columbia University Chaplain and Associate Provost Jewelnel Davis says that “Sy lived his life in the struggle for justice [and] stood tall against anti-Black hate.” He was a sponsor of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the early 1970s, Sy was among the plaintiffs successfully suing to have the loyalty oath removed from U.S. passport applications, asserting that requiring an oath was un-American. During the Vietnam War, Sy led workshops aimed at teaching high school students about activism. Sy’s involvement in Minnesota politics included 10 years serving on the DFL’s central committee. His work with the Organization for a Better Rice County (OBRC) prompted Paul Wellstone to write in How the Rural Poor Got Power that Sy was “a brilliant political strategist who understood how to work with and not for people.” Sy also played an influential role in Wellstone’s two successful campaigns for U.S. senator.
Activism and academic life often combined. About her decade as Carleton College, Chaplain Davis says that Sy “was my partner at every social justice thing I did at that school.” Sy took an active role in the college’s Committee on Social Responsibility in Investment and was instrumental in creating the college’s policies on discrimination and academic freedom and on sexual misconduct. Throughout his career, Sy worked to attract minority and woman professors to Carleton’s math department. When then-professor Paul Wellstone was denied tenure, Sy advocated to reverse the decision. Nationally, Sy served on the American Mathematics Society’s (AMS) Academic Freedom and Human Rights committees. During the Vietnam War, he added his name to an ad in Notices of the AMS urging colleagues not to put “mathematics in the service of this cruel war.”
Neither activism nor academic excellence prevented Sy either from having fun or from being present, first for his children and, later, for his granddaughters. His interests – which included tennis, playing the flute and wilderness canoeing and backpacking, as well as a monthly poker game and annual fishing trip, each with a 40-year history – extended well into his retirement. His adoration of his granddaughters continues to endure. About one of his most passionate pursuits, fly-fishing, Sy once said that his only regret in life was that he did not discover it until he was in his 50s. That late introduction to the sport did not stop him from sharing it with his granddaughters, taking them frequently to fly-fishing conventions and to river’s edge to catch-and-release.
Sy is survived by a son, Paul Schuster of St. Paul; Paul’s daughters, Perrin Schuster and Rae Schuster of St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively; a daughter, Eve Schuster of Brooklyn Center; his brother and sister-in-law, Abe and Faith Schuster of West Dover, Vt.; and his oldest and dearest friend of eight decades, Lillian Lester of Stamford, Conn. He is preceded in death by his wife of 59 years, Marilyn (Weinberg); and by his parents Oscar and Goldie (Smilowitz) Schuster.
The family plans an online memorial to be held November 29 at 1:00 pm central time. To learn more about how to attend and to request a link, go to RSVP now.
Memorials are preferred to the Sy Schuster Diversity and Inclusion Fund. Learn about the fund and how to contribute here.