Dr. Donald Hill, Florida A & M, (with James Turner)

From the outhouses of rural Iowa to the Halls of FAMU is quite a jump

Department of Mathematics
Florida A & M University 
Tallahassee, FL 32307

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Born October 28, 1942, as the first child of a young farming couple, my early years were spent in a home with neither electricity not indoor plumbing. We were really poor, but we did not know it because everyone else was just like us. And yet we were rich. Surrounded by grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends, our lives consisted of hard work on the farm and activities at the Methodist church a few miles away. There was no grocery store, no gas station, no grouping of surrounding houses, no other churches, ...., just that little church in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa in the middle of America. The entire life of the community centered around that church, both social and religious. A more uniform bunch of WASPs would be hard to find.

When I was three, father felt called to the ministry. We left the farm for Parsons College 100 miles away. Father was a full-time student and pastored three small churches. Mother cleaned houses and I helped. Father graduated summa cum laude in three years and then entered the seminary. Those childhood events played a pivotal role in my life.

In high school I became interested in biology. But there are only so many butterflies to chase and it soon became apparent there was a whole lot of hard work involved, namely chemistry. But the same thing happened there. After changing blue things pink and creating bad smells, it became very clear that a whole lot of mathematics was underneath it all. And thus I was led to my true intellectual love.

Iowa Wesleyan College and Mr. Arrison: To say that he was an essential part of the math department is misleading. He WAS the math department and most of the physics department too. But to an eager 16 year old kid he appeared to know more mathematics than seemed possible for any one person to know. And best of all, he wanted to share it. All seven of us math majors(freshmen through seniors) were warmly welcomed into the Arrison family. They lived in a mobile home and our numerous visits sure filled it up. We put a hole in their food budget as well, due to the meager pay he received. To help pay college expenses I shoveled snow, sold shoes, and was an assistant in the chemistry laboratory. I graduated summa cum laude with the highest GPA among 117 students in my class. Yet it can truly be said of the other math major and me that in mathematics he graduated next to the top and I finished next to the bottom.

Ivy League Big Time: At 19 I entered graduat school at Dartmouth. Many students suffered cultural shock in coming to the isolation of Hanover. Not me. The flat cornfields of Iowa were topologically equivalent to the forested mountains of New Hampshire. My new friends regarded it as the boondocks but to me the whole world seemed to open up---just five hours away were Boston, New York City, and Canada. The math world opened, too, and my favourite professors were Ernst Snapper, John Kemeny, and Don Kreider.

Africa: I received by master's degree in 1964. You may recall the spirit of the times. Independence had been obtained by many countries and I was attracted to the newly created Peace Corps. Two drawbacks, however, were that the Peace Corps training was minimal and the American government simply would not allow its volunteers to work in the most difficult(translate that as exciting or dangerous, depending on your point of view) countries. You may also recall that the Congo was the most interesting country on the face of the earth. The size of the US east of the Mississippi with over 30,000,000 citizens, the Belgians had not allowed the Congolese meaningful access to higher education. At independence only 14 Congolese had college degrees! Small wonder that the country disintegrated. One would have to roll Bosnia, Rwanda, and all today's other hot spots together to approximate the Congo of the 1960's. The Batetela of central Congo, now called Zaire, live in an area about the size of Ohio, yet there was not a high school in the entire region. Some Batetela Methodists approached their government and received assurances that if the church could somehow find qualified teachers the government would accredit the school. And that is how I came to teach at Wembo Nyama after studying French for a year in Belgium. The experience was rich and lifechanging. Although extremely isolated(five days by truck to the nearest doctor), the school had the highest success rate in the entire country in terms of government certified graduates, university scholarships, and univeristy graduates. It is not hard to see why. The cost for an entire year at our boarding school was $20, but that was well beyond the reach of most families. A village would band together, pool their resources to obtain $20, and send the brightest, hardest working kid. Some of these students walked 200 miles to Wembo Nyama. I have never seen another group of students like them.

Florida State University: Following some graduate work at LSU and marriage to Kandy Carpenter of Keene, NH, we came to FSU for my Ph. D. with high hopes of accepting one of the offers made by both the Zairian government and Methodist Church for me to return to the national university of Zaire and teach mathematics and mathematics education. Complications with the birth of our second child caused us to relinquish our dreams and seek employment in the US. 1972 was not a good year to start a late search.

Florida A & M University: Miraculously a position opened at FAMU and I expected to be here a year or two, but I found a good university in the process of becoming an even better university. Promotions and tenure came quickly and the pay raises were higher and more regular than I imagined possible. Today we are on the threshold of greatness. The quality of our nationally recruited students and their SAT's have soared dramatically in the last decade. Although the normal teaching load is 12 hours, several of us teach an extra course, at adjunct pay, to avoid over reliance on adjuncts. This semester I am teaching 20 hours, the last four for free, so that we could place all the students who needed calculus. As one of the founders of the Black Archives Research Center and Museum, I still find time to serve as a research associate there.

Professional Activities: I hve been fortunate to serve as chairman of the US National Commission on Mathematical Instruction of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, member of the Board of Governors of the Mathematical Association of America, chairman of a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics major committee, and member of the Speaker's Task Force on Mathematics and Science Improvement of the Florida House of Representatives(Over $50,000,000 extra appropriated in 1983) to mention a few. Of special importance to me was serving on the Executive Committee of the National Association of Mathematicians where I was the founder of the "Talks by Recent Recipients of Ph. D.'s" and twice editor of the "NAM Proceedings," both of which were distributed within two months of our annual meeting. NAM is family to me.

Africa Over the Years: I have made several consulting trips to French-speaking Africa with a variety of agencies such as Peace Corps(Senegal), Ford Foundation(Zaire), US Information Agency(Togo), and US Agency for International Development(Senegal), all of which have involved some combination of mathematics, statistics, computer science and the teaching of those subjects.

Africa Today: At the invitation of African friends, I am doing my small part to create a new university in Zimbabwe for the whole of Africa. Although the first in Africa, it is related to the United Methodist Church in the same manner as Bethune-Cookman, Clark-Atlanta, Meharry, Dillard, Rust, Bennett, etc. and SMU, Emory, Duke, Syracuse, and some hundred other colleges and universities. I taught accelerated courses there in 1993 and will return in 1996 to give a series of lectures and participate in the dedication of a building. Many Americans seem to be interested in Africa University. Invited addresses to the Florida Section of the MAA and to the Florida Council of Teachers of Mathematics had overflowing audiences. Indeed, in over 60 presentations to thousands of people, the financial support raised for AU has been most gratifying.

Summary: My advice to young people is ot find something you love to do, work hard, help others, and enjoy all three. For me it is mathematics.

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