Jerry King

Jerry King, who died Oct. 15, 2020, had a gift for explaining mathematics. Photo: Theo Anderson

Remembering Jerry King, Mathematician and Marathoner

King, who had a 45-year career at Lehigh, had a gift for explaining 'the beauty' of mathematics.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Jerry King, professor emeritus of mathematics at Lehigh who had a gift for explaining the “beauty and wonder” of mathematics to students and lay people alike and whose myriad passions included both Shakespeare and Frank Sinatra, died Oct. 15, 2020. He was 85.

King, who was also dean emeritus of the Graduate School at Lehigh, grew up in Murray, Kentucky, and worked his way through the University of Kentucky, "where he fell in love twice": first with mathematics, then with the woman who became his wife, Jane Connell. Five days after they married in 1962, he began his 45-year career at Lehigh, becoming full professor at 32.  

King, of Bethlehem, Pa., went on to serve as Lehigh's associate dean of arts and sciences and dean of the Graduate School, then returned to teaching in 1988.

“He had a gift not just for explaining mathematics but for enabling students, lay audiences and readers of his booksanyone who might have felt intimidated by mathematicsto see the beauty and wonder of it,” said friend and former colleague Kurt Pfitzer, who worked in Lehigh’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

Jerry King

Jerry King signs copies of his book, 'The Art of Mathematics' in 1993 at the Moravian Bookstore in Bethlehem, Pa. Photo: Elizabeth Keegin Colley

“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 interestinghe 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." 

Jerry was not only interestinghe was also interested.

Vincent Coll, professor of practice of mathematics at Lehigh

King’s work in the classroom earned him two of Lehigh’s most prestigious teaching awards: the Stabler Award for Excellence in Teaching, based on nominations from undergraduate students, and the Deming Lewis Faculty Award, given by the 10-year reunion class to the faculty member who most significantly influenced their educational experience. He also was president of the Pennsylvania Association of Graduate Schools and a member of the Board of Governors of the Mathematical Association of America. 

“Jerry had such enormous respect and interest in mathematics,” said Dick Barsness, former dean of Lehigh’s College of Business. “He always wanted people to refer to the subject as mathematics, not math. He, in addition, was incredibly well read, in terms of classics, of both  Shakespeare plays and classic literature and could quote from any number of sources spontaneously, which I always found both fascinating and remarkable.” 

Barsness said that what he will remember most about King was “his love of life and enthusiasm for the things he did. He really loved teaching. He was an extraordinary teacher. He loved to talk about a broad range of subjectspolitics, history, musical events.”

A specialist in the areas of complex analysis and summability theory, King lectured nationwide and abroad, published many research papers and reviews and guided nine Ph.D. students. 

Pfitzer recalled King talking about a debate in his field over the question: Should mathematicians consider that a new result in mathematics had been created or discovered? “The question, he believed, had theological implications,” Pfitzer said.

Several Lehigh graduates wrote online tributes to King when they learned he had passed. “Teaching Mathematics was always a love and a passion of Jerry's and he did it better than anyone I know,” wrote one.  “I have attended many of the classes Jerry taught and I always marveled at how the subject unfolded miraculously in his hands and how magnetic he was in drawing the student's attention to his subject material.”

King is survived by his wife, Jane King; daughter, Elizabeth King and husband William Baker of New Milford, Connecticut; son, David King ’87 and wife Robin King of Philadelphia; and grandchildren Ryan and Michelle King.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu