Helping Students Celebrate Their Triumphs

By Shannon Sigafoos
Gary Gordon sits outside, basked in warm light

Gary Gordon

Gary Gordon joined the Department of Mathematics in 1986, along with his wife, Liz McMahon. He served as the department head on three occasions over a period of eight years, and has been inspired by colleagues who truly care about their teaching at such a high level.

“I had a few goals as department head. My top concern was building a real community within the department, supporting students, and constantly telling everyone about how wonderful the Math Department is. It’s a taxing job, and bike riding was a good way for me to decompress. My favorite part was working closely with our tremendous secretary, Jayne Trent, who made me look more organized than I am,” he recalls. “I think the key to succeeding at the job is being honest with people, taking the time to listen to concerns, and to be responsive.”

Throughout his time at Lafayette, Gordon undertook a number of endeavors outside the classroom that he always saw as important pieces of service to the school. When Prof. Cliff Reiter got the College involved in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in the early ’90s, Gordon (and McMahon) became involved, and Gordon ran the program from 2000 to 2010, during that time publishing 16 papers with student co-authors. One of those, “Pick a tree, any tree,” won the Paul R. Halmos-Lester R. Ford Award for exposition.

“In order to find good problems for students to work on, I needed to get into a different creative space than I usually do when I research,” Gordon shares. “I think it’s impossible to predict the direction a career can take. Try to be open to new ideas and experiences.”

Gordon was also a mentor for the Posse Scholars program and the Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME) program, both of which he says made him a better, more patient teacher and parent.

“I was a Posse mentor (with McMahon) back in 2003, working with the New York contingent that graduated in 2007. Working with a group of students whose backgrounds were so different from the vast majority of the students I teach was really eye-opening. Liz and I each served as mentors one more time, leading our own groups,” he shares. “Understanding their struggles, helping them cope with a campus that was quite alienating, celebrating their triumphs, and getting to know them as individuals and seeing them riff off of each other in a group was tremendously inspiring to me.”


Liz McMahon and Gary Gordon sit in an office together

Liz McMahon and Gary Gordon

Gordon and McMahon are still in touch with those Posse alums and hold yearly reunions with them. The meaningful relationships they forged led to their interest in working with LIME, which Gordon says was easy to get involved in because “equality of opportunity speaks loudly to me, and it’s easy for me to love any program that brings very talented and hard-working students to Lafayette.”

Outside of his work in the classroom and with College initiatives, Gordon—a lover of America’s national pastime—twice taught an FYS course on baseball, which led to being asked to be the faculty mentor for Lafayette’s baseball team, working with then-coach Joe Kinney and his staff.

“It was a real highlight for me. It allowed me to read as many baseball books as I wanted without feeling guilty about time I wasn’t proving theorems or reading more math,” Gordon laughs.

And though Gordon looks forward to resting more in his retirement, he and McMahon have already made plans to volunteer at MoMath (National Museum of Mathematics in New York City) and the Posse Foundation, and Gordon has just accepted a five-year post as new co-editor-in-chief for AMC 10/12, a high school math exam that helps identify high-achieving students.

“The rest [of retirement] will look familiar,” Gordon says. “Travel, seeing children, and possibly writing a book with Liz and our children.”

Reflection from Provost John Meier:

As I am sure you know, Gary and Liz each have an amazing record of teaching, research, and engagement. They also have an amazing record as a team, having periodically co-authored work and been excellent role models for anyone seeking to balance home life, a dedication to students in and out of the classroom, and all the responsibilities of being a mathematics professor.

No summary of Gary would be complete without noting that he is amazingly quick witted and funny. In addition to being a real asset for his teaching, there are more than traces of his humor in his published work, and his humor has on multiple occasions helped the department and the College negotiate difficult conversations.

Reflection from Prof. Evan Fisher, mathematics:

It is impossible to document all the contributions Gary and Liz have made to the Mathematics Department and the College. They are exceptional teachers—inspiring and highly motivational. They are strongly supportive of their students and are able to connect with students both professionally and personally. There is genuine affection that works in both directions with their students.

Among the many experiences they have given to students are their work as Posse mentors, supervisors of REU projects, honors thesis supervisors, independent study instructors, EXCEL research supervisors, etc. They have also served as principal investigators of the NSF-REU program run by the Mathematics Department.

Both Profs. Gordon and McMahon are active scholars and continue to be active in the mathematics community outside the College with journal publications and as frequently invited presenters of their mathematical research at schools and conferences. Their family-written book on the mathematically inspired game SET, The Joy of SET, and their presentations based on the book have been enthusiastically received by students and faculty, including at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. Prof. Gordon’s research on matroids resulted in a highly regarded undergraduate introduction to the topic, Matroids: A Geometric Introduction. Prof. Gordon also has served as a problem editor for the Mathematical Association of America’s undergraduate mathematics journal, Math Horizons.

Both Gary and Liz have been constructively supportive of the faculty in our department, particularly of newer faculty, adjunct, visiting, and tenure-track faculty. As department head for more than a full term, including at the last minute when Prof. Chawne Kimber left to be the dean of faculty at Washington and Lee University this past summer, Gary brought stability to the department and as in the past, continued his good-natured and supportive leadership to the department.

These contributions do not do justice to all that Gary and Liz have brought to the department and College. The department and the College will miss the positive energy they bring to all aspects of the College community. On a personal note, Liz and Gary and my wife, Alexis, and I arrived on campus at the same time, and became instant friends with many shared interests. They have been wonderful friends, constantly supportive of us, both professionally and personally. They are wonderful people and have been excellent citizens of the College community who will be sorely missed.