“Over the years, I met and talked with Jerry many times, usually when we bumped into each other on campus,” Pfitzer said. “Jerry had a winsome personality, he was courteous to a fault, and he always took an interest in what I had to say.”
King used to offer an hour-long class in mathematics to alumni returning each year to Lehigh for Reunion, said Pfitzer, who attended a session. “In a panoramic and captivating way,” Pfitzer said, “Jerry showed how each field of mathematics described a part of the natural world.”
In addition to King’s deep love of his family and his interest in mathematics, his many other passions included Shakespeare, Sinatra, the Bible, poet Robert Frost, novelist/screenwriter Raymond Chandler, Happy Hour, film noir and storytelling.
King was also an athlete, having played three sports in high school. He started running at age 35 and became a sub-three-hour marathoner in his 40s, ultimately finishing 25 Boston Marathons.
“Jerry was not only interesting—he was also interested,” said friend and former colleague Vincent Coll, professor of practice of mathematics at Lehigh. “He listened better than anyone I have ever met. I knew that I had his full attention when I was speaking, and he certainly had mine when he spoke.”
When Coll joined Lehigh in 2008, King was already retired and occupied the emeritus office several doors down from him. “Despite our generational divide, or perhaps because of it, we became fast friends,” said Coll, who shared many interests with him.
Given King’s reputation as “a teacher of note and writer of renown,” Coll said he one day asked King to review a manuscript he was preparing. Noting that Coll had used the adjective "very" in a few places, King suggested replacing the word with “damned” in his next draft. Falling into the trap that King had set for him, Coll said he asked, “What then?” King said he should then remove “damned” in every instance and the paper would be improved.
“Of course, he was paraphrasing a famous writing directive of Mark Twain,” Coll said. “But Jerry was like that, he was both playful and informative in our discussions. I felt that everything was cross-referenced in his psyche. Each conversation reminded him of a gem of an anecdote, a story, or some other reference that seemed somehow apposite to our conversation. Everything seemed to fit together as neatly as a bunch of puzzle pieces.”
He said King’s playful personality came through in his writing. “His award-winning ‘Art of Mathematics’ is a beautiful brew of mathematics and well-crafted prose,” he says. “No small feat.” King also wrote “Mathematics in 10 Lessons: The Grand Tour."