by Roger N. Perry, Jr. '45EDITOR'S NOTE: John van Alstyne is a familiar figure to several generations of alumni. He came to WPI as a professor of mathematics in 1961, intending to stay just one year; he departed 28 years later, having also served 10 years as director of academic advising. Few faculty members in WPI's history have been so devoted to their students, and few have been so beloved by them. When he stood to say an early good-bye at Commencement in 1987, the standing ovation he received shook the rafters in Harrington Auditorium. Roger Perry recently visited van A in North Carolina and filed this report on his busy retirement.
Many were the WPI freshmen struggling with their first college-level mathematics courses who concluded that Professor John van Alstyne must have been a wizard as he stood at the blackboard whipping through a calculus problem. Now retired and living in Asheville, N.C., van Alstyne has become a real, celebrated wizard of sorts.
"One of the first things I did after retiring in 1989 and moving to Asheville was sign up for several courses at the College for Seniors," he says. "This is a program for retired people held at a branch of the University of North Carolina. I've been involved there ever since - as a student, as a teacher and, for several years, as registrar.
"It was in one of these classes that I met Bill Brittain, who, I learned, was a writer of more than 90 published mystery stories. He formerly lived in New York state, as did I. We hit it off quite well. One day he said, 'I've got an idea for a children's story. Would you have any objection if I dedicated it to you?' I was very pleased and told him to go ahead. He didn't tell me I was going to be in it!"
Van Alstyne heard nothing more about the book for a year. "Then I went to the annual board meeting of the College for Seniors, of which Bill's wife, Ginny, was a member. The meeting had just about ended when the head of the program said, 'Ginny wants to make a presentation.'
"She said her husband had been writing some books, working with an illustrator named James Warhola, who, I learned later, is the nephew of Andy Warhol. She said he had done two special paintings for Bill, and that Bill wanted them to go to me in appreciation for everything I'd done for the college. Then she held up two beautifully done pictures, in full color, each about 10 by 15 inches. They were portraits - of me!"
Several months later, Bill Brittain presented van Alstyne with a copy of the first book, The Wizards and the Monster (HarperCollins Children's Books). The main character, a substitute fifth-grade teacher named Mr. Merlin, bears an uncanny resemblance to van Alstyne. "Bill told me that Warhola had created the artwork strictly from Bill's description of me," van Alstyne says.
"I told him I thought the illustrations were wonderful and looked just like me. He passed my comments along to the worried artist, who earlier had asked, 'He's not going to sue me, is he?'"
A second book featuring Mr. Merlin, The Mystery of the Several Sevens, came out a few months later. Since then, van Alstyne says, he's autographed many copies of both volumes for children of former students. "My own grandson was born at just about that time," he says. "I thought, 'what a nice gift the portrait and the books will be for him to enjoy when he grows older.'"
Brittain's books take Mr. Merlin, Becky and Simon, two of his brighter students, back to the legendary times of King Arthur. There, Mr. Merlin, a.k.a. Merlin the Wizard, guides them through a series of adventures that, not unexpectedly, involve mathematics.
"I gave copies of the books to the librarian at the Country Day School, where I teach," van Alstyne says. "About two weeks later, as I walked across the campus, I passed a group of elementary students who were not in my class. They were smiling and pointing at me, so I knew they'd seen the books. Then I started teaching at a city middle school, and the kids there would also smile and point. So now I'm famous. They don't know who I am, but they know I'm the one in the book. And since they think I am, I guess that makes me a wizard."
John van Alstyne retired as dean of academic advising and professor of mathematical sciences in 1989 and moved to Asheville. "Although I thoroughly enjoyed my years at WPI, one of the reasons I moved to Asheville was that it was far enough away from Worcester so when I picked up the newspaper, I wasn't going to read about WPI," he says. "If I were closer, I would read about it and miss not being a part of it.
"I had visited Asheville twice before and I liked the area. And my daughter was then working for the U.S. Forestry service here. I love the mountains and the moderate climate in western North Carolina, too."
After he'd been in the state for a few weeks, his daughter took him to the university to find out about the College for Seniors. He signed up for four courses that semester, including one on ceramics and one on real and mythical figures in British history. "I also took a course on the difficulties between the people of the Muslim faith and the Western world taught by a man from Turkey," says van Alstyne.
When the director of the college found out he'd done scheduling at WPI, she asked if he would like to help with that function there as well. That spring, she announced that she was leaving and asked van Alstyne if he would take over the running of the college. "I told her I really didn't think I should do that because I hadn't been there long enough, but I would be glad to help out until someone else was appointed," he says. "So I was acting head for three months. Since then I have been the registrar."
"The year after I worked with them, they took the SATs as high school freshmen and all scored over 1200. They were disappointed because they had to be sophomores before they could compete for the National Merit Scholarships."
In 1989, van Alstyne's daughter, who was then teaching at a private day school, told her father she knew a few students who had finished every math course the school offered. "She wondered if I could teach them a step up," he says. "So I started in with only two students and taught them what would have been Calculus III and Diffy Qs (differential equations) at WPI. They later took the university exam. One of them, at the age of 17, earned the highest grade of all the students who took that exam."
Van Alstyne then began teaching younger students, working through a program called MATHCOUNTS, a national initiative sponsored by several engineering societies. He coached a team of students who went on to win the Western North Carolina mathcounts championship. "I started by teaching them beginning algebra and went right through to matrix theory, linear algebra, and topics like that. The year after I worked with them, they took the SATs as high school freshmen and all scored over 1200. They were disappointed because they had to be sophomores before they could compete for the National Merit Scholarships."
In time, he started tutoring students, mostly disadvantaged youngsters, in the public high schools, as well as students from the university. "I ended up with about 30 students a year in 10 to 12 different courses, from beginning algebra on up. At Asheville High, I was given a room during the regular school day so I could teach rather than just tutor students. The university students would meet with me after hours in the office that comes with the job of registrar for the College for Seniors."
When he's not been engaged in teaching mathematics, van Alstyne has devised a few courses for the college. They include "'Tis a Puzzlement," a look at various number systems that "helps the seniors who might never have had much math get some idea where math has come from. I also taught a course on oral history because I had gained some experience with this while serving as an advisor at WPI's London and Washington, D.C., project centers."
Though he endeavored to get away from Worcester and the university he served for 28 years, van Alstyne says he does miss the campus community. "I really enjoy college people and would miss not having an academic affiliation," he says. "If there was not a university here in Asheville for me to become a part of, I'd have found it very difficult. But here I've gotten to know a lot of the undergraduates. Since my name is unfamiliar to them, I tell them to just call me "van A." That's what I've been called by students for many years. Even the new chancellor calls me van A."
The dedication to van Alstyne in The Wizards and the Monster and beneath it van A's own whimsical dedication to a friend.
Van Alstyne enjoys taking long walks near his home in Asheville and taking in the lush scenery. "I do miss the changing fall colors. There are very few maples down here, so what we get are shades of browns, tans and yellows, but none of those marvelous scarlets or golds I remember from New England. The first year I was here, I went up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway thinking, "Oh, good. I can go for miles amidst the beautiful fall colors.' I went for miles, but I never saw any of the colors I knew from up north."
While the fall colors may disappoint, van Alstyne says the region abounds in wildlife -- he's even spied a bear near his house -- which he enjoys seeing on hikes and mountain climbs with his daughter and young grandson. "He has reached the stage where he loves words," van Alstyne says. "He likes words that rhyme, so I have to figure out stories with words that use the same sound in different ways. I tell him about the fox that locks his sox with the clocks in a box, for example. He thinks that's just great."
Van A has also become involved with the local music scene. "Here in Asheville, we have a pretty good symphony orchestra. I've been going to that since I came here. Then we have an Asheville Community Concert Series; I got put on the board of that for a while. I'm a member of a local chamber music group, and they wanted me to serve on their board, but I suggested that they give someone else a chance.
"Then I go over to Warren Wilson College, which it not very far away. They have a summer music festival much like the Marlborough Festival in Vermont. I help them when I can. I've also been asked to join a couple of clubs, but for that I guess they'll have to wait until I 'retire'."
Perry is senior writer for WPI's development newsletter, Quest.
Dedication text ©1994 by Bill Brittain
Illustrations ©1994 by James Warhola
Photo by Roger N. Perry '45
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