Academics In the Field of Numbers

Wilmer Lehman ’57 and Millard Showalter ’62

“When I first began working at Eastern Mennonite College,” recalls professor emeritus Wilmer Lehman ’57, “teaching at EMC was seen as a kind of mission of the church.” Back in the era of Sputnik, math education was a carefully calculated national priority, and teachers of mathematics were in high demand. This small private school struggled to compete with the demand for higher-level mathematicians generated by Cold War anxieties, especially given its status as a Christian-pacifist institution that garnered no funding for defense-related work.

But being a devout Anabaptist, Lehman opted to take the proverbial “road less traveled” in U.S. academia and returned to teach at his alma mater two years after graduation. “When I came [for the 1959-60 school year], I did not know what my yearly salary would be,” Lehman says. “I found that it was about $2,500, spread over nine or ten months – all of which it took just to live. We had to scrape by in the summers.” Later, Lehman would earn a master of arts in teaching with a math concentration from Cornell University and become a full professor at EMU.

Lehman became the foundation of what has grown into a thriving program in the mathematical sciences. Early in his 40-year career at EMU, he taught Millard Showalter ’62 and then recruited him to be a fellow faculty member. Lehman’s education continued, even as he was educating another generation. In the early 1990s, Lehman earned a second master’s degree (this time an MA in Christian leadership, focusing on counseling) at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in order to prepare himself for leadership roles in his congregation, Mt. Clinton Mennonite Church, and the conference to which it belongs.

Like Lehman, Showalter earned his graduate degrees while working for minimal pay at EMU. Showalter holds two master’s degrees, one in math from the University of South Carolina and another master’s in arts (with a math major) from Vanderbilt, and an EdD from the University of Virginia.

“Millard was quite popular,” said Lehman, adding he was gifted at making math understandable and enjoyable. In fact, at one point Showalter’s students wore T-shirts that read “Millard’s Magnificent Mathematicians.”

Lehman and Showalter taught in tandem for decades – serving under four presidents and seven academic deans – until Showalter retired in 1998, with Lehman following in 2000. Both were beloved for their willingness to work one-on-one with students having difficulty in math, acting as both tutor and encourager.

In the summer 2011 issue of Crossroads, Lehman displayed his “mission” approach to teaching in an anecdote recounted by Wayne Lawton ’71. Lawton had returned to college as an older adult and was struggling to catch up in math. Serving as a pastor in Waynesboro while taking classes, Lawton sheepishly approached Lehman, asking if more help might be possible. Lehman replied, “When you pastor a church, do you mind people coming to you for help?” When Lawton said no, Lehman replied, “Well, I don’t mind helping you!”

Showalter recalls his years teaching with Lehman at EMU as “the best years of my life.” Although he struggled both to make math interesting to students and to integrate changes in technology and teaching methods, he credits his students for making his career memorable. “I was very fortunate to have had excellent math majors. My students not only challenged me to be a better teacher, but also brought creativity and a desire to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.” Perhaps because of his infectious enthusiasm – he once spent an entire sabbatical rewriting lesson plans to adjust to technological changes – it is no surprise that Showalter says: “If I were to again be given the opportunity to choose a life career, I don’t doubt that teaching mathematics at EMU would be my first choice.”

Reflecting on the “ripple effects” coming from his lengthy career, Lehman realizes that he’s internalized some aspects of teaching. “I’m always on my best behavior, no matter where I go,” he says. “I never know when I’m going to run into a former student. I’ve run into them as far away as the Nairobi (Kenya) marketplace.”

In addition to Lehman and Showalter, four other EMU alumni taught mathematical sciences for extended stints: two members of the class of 1962, Del Snyder and Donald C. Miller (who also attended the seminary in 1976-77); Roy E. Heatwole ’64; and John L. Horst ’60, who taught both physics and mathematics and coached award-winning teams in international math-modeling competitions.

When Joe Mast ’64 was a student at EMU in the early 1960s his long-term goal was to be a high school math and physics teacher.  “At the time, I did not aspire to teach at the college level,” he says. “[But] I had a great interest in astronomy and electronics.” His physics professor, Robert Lehman, encouraged him to pursue astronomy and return to his alma mater.

As a student at EMU, Mast helped to manage the WEMC radio station as chief engineer and station manager and was part of the Astral Society, which focused on astronomy. In the Cold War era, space-race money was available, and he received a special fellowship that allowed him to pursue a master’s degree and a PhD at the University of Virginia, both in astronomy. Upon returning to then-EMC as a faculty member, the college received its first computer under a grant to small colleges. Mast became EMU’s first computer science professor.

On sabbatical in 1978, Mast went to JMU, where he studied computer science courses, and later received a second master’s degree in computer science. He returned to EMU, where he ushered in a two-year associate’s degree in computer processing, followed several years later by a major in computer science.

In response to a need by fellow EMU employees for banking services, in 1969 Mast helped to found Park View Federal Credit Union, an idea originating with Dan Bender and developed by Robert Lehman. Three years later Mast began managing the credit union out of his office in the basement of the Suter Science Center, continuing for 10 years.

One of EMU’s best-known mathematical sons is Robert P. Hostetler ’59, who retired from teaching in 1996 and only stopped writing textbooks in 2007. He now lives as a retiree within walking distance of EMU.

Hostetler holds a bachelor’s degree in secondary education (math certification) from EMU, a master’s degree in mathematics, and a doctorate in mathematics education, both graduate degrees from Penn State University.

Hostetler is perhaps one of the most successful authors of math education texts in any language; his books have been used widely by students and teachers for decades. About 300 titles with Hostetler’s name as author or co-author reside on the Barnes and Noble website. Google Books puts the total count of books, editions, study guides – anything with his name – at about 2,400. Some of Hostetler’s dozens of textbooks have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese; they range from college algebra, trigonometry and calculus to The Mathematics of Buying.

One of Hostetler’s challenges as a professor, he says, “was how to share my Christian faith with students,” given the constraints of teaching at a state-supported university, which necessarily is based on the separation of church and state. After consulting with his pastor, Hostetler decided that he would “self-identify” with the faith when introducing himself to each new class. “I simply stated that I am a Christian; I believe in a living God to whom I pray for guidance in my teaching and relationships with you students,” he told them. “I want to do my best for you.” He says he sometimes learned the outcome of his “sharing of faith” years later, when former students would get back in touch and tell him, “Dr. Hostetler, guess what—I’ve become a Christian! What you shared in that first day of calculus class, I just couldn’t get out of my mind over the years, so I’ve made that decision!”

Outside of the university, Hostetler has shared his faith and enthusiasm for teaching and learning as a Sunday School teacher for more than 40 years.

In the spring 2006 issue of Crossroads, Hostetler spoke about an unusual sabbatical he took in 1997-98 during which he taught without pay at EMU as a way of “going back to my roots.”

In comparing his classes at EMU and those at Behrend College of Penn State University, Hostetler said the classes were similarly sized – about 30 to 32 students, with comparable academic abilities. He used the same textbooks (his own), the same curriculum and grading standards at both universities. Though the percentage of students at the high and low ends of the grading spectrum was the same, it was the middle group of students that surprised Hostetler. “At EMU, the middle group of students went up in their performance [as the semesters progressed]; at Penn State, the middle group shifted downward.”

Hostetler attributed the improved performance of the average student at EMU to “a more caring faculty, the work ethic of students at EMU, the community spirit that helped each student to feel valued, and the fact that EMU students act with Christian charity toward one another and help each other out.” Plus, he added, “attention was given to all students equally, rather than just to the excellent or the deficient.”

At the University Park Campus of Penn State, James L. Rosenberger ’68 is an internationally recognized statistician, with a master’s degree from Polytechnic Institute of New York and a doctorate from Cornell University. He says that EMU professor Roy Heatwole first sparked his interest in working with statistics. Graduating with a major in math, Rosenberger was able to secure 1-W conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War by working as an analyst and programmer in the Cardiovascular Research Center at New York University Medical Center.

Rosenberger, who is now vice-president of the 18,000-member American Statistical Association, believes statisticians are uniquely situated in positions where ethical decisions are amplified. “We are constantly faced with real data which can easily be misrepresented for the benefit of proving a point. Understanding the importance of integrity informs much of my work,” he says. “I teach students and consult with researchers to honestly represent the uncertainty in the conclusions of a study or research experiment.”

During the past decade, Rosenberger has guided the development of an online professional master of applied statistics program at Penn State, aimed at mid-career professionals who cannot return to graduate school full time. “More than 500 students enroll in our graduate courses each semester, allowing us to extend the reach of statistics education beyond the campus,” he says.

To Rosenberger, statistics is “a wonderful profession.” Not only is it a challenge learning the language of scientific collaboration, but it is a quest for truth. “We can get involved in so many interesting disciplines and issues, always facing uncertain information and mountains of data,” he says, “to which we apply our tools and skills to uncover the truth.”

Rosenberger’s accomplishments include: a 2011 Distinguished Service Award from the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, election to Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, serving as program director at the National Science Foundation, and lecturing around the globe.

One of Millard Showalter’s students, Merle Reinford ’72, has gone on to earn a graduate degree in math (where most of his courses were easier than those at EMU, he says) and to devote nearly 40 years to teaching math students at Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite High School. Some semesters, he also teaches math as an adjunct at Millersville University.

Sharpening the minds of his high school students, he has spent 33 years coaching competitive chess, eventually getting elected president of the regional scholastic chess league.

Reinford’s coaching successes are dramatic. In 33 years his high school teams won 11 league titles, with runner-up success 13 more times. Reinford’s chess teams have accumulated a plethora of state competition titles, with a record of 315 wins to 90 losses and 23 ties. “I have used my enjoyment of the game to play chess with homeless men,” he says. “I am not sure if you could call that a ministry or not,” given how much fun he has.

After graduating from EMU, Larry Lehman ’79 got a fellowship at University of Virginia, where he earned his doctorate. He credits two of his math professors, Millard Showalter and Del Snyder, with preparing him for his own professorship at University of Mary Washington, where he spent six years as chair of the math department. “They [Snyder and Showalter] emphasized not just knowledge of facts, but consideration of why things are true, how different mathematical concepts fit together.”

Larry Lehman emphasizes the role that EMU played in his upbringing from childhood: “It was more than a school, but very much my home community.” He has embraced the educational spirit he saw in his EMU instructors. “Teaching has its challenges, of course, particularly with finding new ways to interest and motivate students, but so far I am still enjoying the challenge.”

Wendell Ressler ’80 stayed in Harrisonburg to teach high school math and physics after he graduated from EMU, and then earned his master’s degree from James Madison University. Ressler, who now holds a PhD from Temple University, found himself thirsting for more knowledge. “I loved studying analytic number theory,” he says. “In retrospect, it seems that I kept trying to get off the academic track, but curiosity kept pulling me back. Or, maybe I just liked being a student.”

Now a math professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., Ressler does research in the abstract stream of his field – automorphic integrals, Dirichlet series, and Hecke correspondence. He has an obvious affection for proofs and logic, which he says was nurtured by his EMU profs. “By far the most important thing I learned from Millard Showalter and Del Snyder was how to prove things: how to think about proofs, and how to write them,” he says. “I didn’t have as many fancy courses in my background as many other students in graduate school, but that did not matter because I knew how to prove things.”

Ressler has also found himself living many of the core EMU values of peace and social justice. “My peace and justice classes with Ray Gingerich and Titus Bender influenced my thinking a lot. I volunteered with the Mediation Center and Christians for Peace when I lived in Harrisonburg, and with St. Vincent’s Peace Center in Germantown when I lived in Philadelphia. I did war tax resistance and eventually the IRS garnished my wages.”

Ressler is now focused on pursuing environmental justice. He volunteers at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, where he pays a voluntary “gas tax” to discourage driving and fund green upgrades for the congregation. He is an avid bicyclist, another love with roots at EMU. “One of my housemates at EMC got me to buy a used bicycle. I loved riding around Harrisonburg and started commuting by bicycle to work. I estimate that I have ridden about 50,000 miles since I graduated from EMC.” Ressler believes that bicycles may help save us from the problems of internal combustion.

Deirdre Smeltzer ’87 returned to EMU in 1998 after graduating from the University of Virginia with an MS and a PhD in mathematics.

Recalling her undergraduate years at EMU, Smeltzer credits two professors, Millard Showalter in Calculus II and Del Snyder in Discrete Math, for nurturing her interest in higher-level mathematics.

“Millard made class interesting, and I found myself doing his homework first,” she says. “In Discrete Math, I discovered that I really loved the abstract, logical thinking required – much more than the hands-on labs of chemistry, which was another major that I was considering.”

As an EMU faculty member, Smeltzer has taught courses on more than two dozen topics in her field and is author or co-author of a number of peer-reviewed articles and a textbook. In the current academic year, she has directed EMU’s extensive cross-cultural programs on a part-time basis. In the late spring, she was named EMU’s vice president and undergraduate dean, effective July 1, 2013.

During his time as an undergrad at EMU, Mark D. Risser ’07 was involved in student government, the student newspaper, and was recipient of a presidential scholarship award. After graduating, Risser worked for EMU in the admissions department before being pulled back to the discipline of rigorous academics. “Working in admissions was a fantastic experience, and allowed me to sink my roots a little deeper into the greater Mennonite community,” he says. “But as I didn’t have an outlet for the mathematical side of my brain, I started feeling the draw of returning to school for something math-related.”

After consulting with his former professors, Deirdre Smeltzer and Owen Byer, Risser was “hooked” on the idea of grad school, and decided to pursue a PhD in statistics. He is now a doctoral student at Ohio State University and recently received his MS (also at Ohio State), where he is also involved in research on HyFlex (hybrid, flexible) education methods. Risser says he hopes to have the kind of impact on a future generation of college students as his EMU teachers had on him.

A common characteristic of all of our alumni in higher-level, academic studies of numbers is a strong appreciation for, and commitment to, the EMU community. “Once I joined the EMU faculty and took on its mission,” Mast says, “I was willing to sacrifice many things to advance the program to the best of my abilities.”

The faculty’s sacrificial efforts seem to have borne fruit: “My educational experiences grounded me in a distinctive Christian understanding where the things I believe impact my life style and goals,” says Jim Rosenberger from his perch as the leading academic statistician at the University Park Campus of Penn State. “In particular, integrity became a central core value from lessons learned at EMU.” — Evan Knappenberger, class of 2014

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