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William Robert Mann - UNC Math Professor (1920 - 2006)

by Dr Harold Kushner

I first met Professor Mann in the fall of 1958 when he walked into my math 15A classroom in Phillips Hall. He was dressed in a tan gabardine double breasted suit fashionable in the 1930's, a white shirt with the collar buttoned and no tie. His hair was reddish brown, abundant and unruly, and he was thin, but full cheeked with ruddy complexion. He looked like a young English vicar but he could have been a student, for in those days there were lots of older students implementing their GI bills. He was 38 and the youngest full Professor on the faculty.

Painting of former UNC Mathematics Professor Robert Mann by his grandaughter Kathryn Mann

But, he assumed his position in the front of the class and began teaching immediately with great authority. He spoke in fluent and eloquent paragraphs with exquisitely precise language, but pronounced in soft southern syllables. About five minutes into his presentation, a young male student asked no one in particular who he was. He stopped, and said, "I'm sorry, my name is Bob Mann." And wrote "Robert Mann" on the blackboard.

That began my 48-year relationship with Professor Robert Mann. I took six courses from Professor Mann and when it was time to apply for medical school, I went by his office and asked him if he would write me a letter of recommendation. He was standing in the office smoking a cigar and blowing the smoke into a cigar box which had holes cut into it, and the holes were covered with Saran wrap. He explained that he was investigating the mathematical description of exhaust gases from rockets in the then very nascent space program. When I asked him if he would write a letter for me, he responded with great alacrity: "of course." And he stopped what he was doing, picked up a lead pencil and a yellow legal pad and proceded to write the most beautiful and persuasive letter a prospective med school applicant could ever have. He tore the page from the pad, and handed it to me and said to use it as I saw fit.

His knowledge was encyclopedic; his brilliance was luminous. He formulated the Mann Iteration for fixed point analysis, wrote an advanced calculus textbook which was the standard college text for many years, and he taught with such passion and inspiration that it was a wonderful gift to be in his presence. I used to sit with him at Emerson Field and watch baseball games just for more exposure to his wisdom and judgment.

"Bob" Mann in his office on the third floor of Phillips Hall at UNC Chapel Hill where he enjoyed nothing more than helping his students

Once after a particularly trying and rigorous exam period, I showed up at his office, unkempt, bleary eyed and unshaven, dressed in raggedy Bermuda shorts and a tee shirt (and this was in the days when boys dressed in khakis and oxford blue shirts from Milton's) to see what my grade was. He gave me the news, and then asked if I would like to accompany him to Danziger's Tea Room to have lunch with Mrs. Mann and him. I demurred because of my appearance; but he was completely oblivious to my inappropriate dress. It was unimportant to him. He saw through the superficial.... straight to the heart of a person or a problem.

I recall that we had an earnest student in the class named Mendenhall. He asked Dr Mann a question one day, and Professor responded with great patience; "As usual, Mr. Mendenhall, your problem lies with the ambiguity to the antecedent of the relative pronoun." And he advised me on several occasions, even into the 90's, to attempt to avoid pronouns in my discourse if possible. He was a very strict prescriptive grammarian. Once a student asked for his help on a problem, and Dr Mann asked him where he was going with a step. The student said, I really don't know where I'm going. "In that case," Dr Mann said, "you should read Alice in Wonderland." When the student looked perplexed, Dr Mann reminded him of the Cheshire Cat's admonition to Alice: "if you don't care where you are going, it doesn't matter which direction you take", and he reminded us that Lewis Carroll taught Math at Cambridge.

Once, he asked me to baby-sit for him when he lived in the house on Old Mill Road in Greenwood, before he moved to Whitehead Circle. I agreed, and we went out in the parking lot to drive over to his home in his car. We must have spent 30 minutes looking for his car, before he remembered that he didn't bring his car that day, and had been dropped off.

I left Chapel Hill in 1961 and wrote him erratically. Then in 1980, my daughter came to Chapel Hill and took one of his classes. He was already family folklore. So when I went up to visit her, she arranged for us to have lunch together, and we resumed our friendship. He came to see me each year for 8 or ten years, and I would come to visit him in the house on Whitehead Circle, and met his friends. He loved to dance, and play tennis with much guile and wickedness, and read philosophy and study theology, and fight against what he thought were the destructive currents of academia. When he came to see me, he enjoyed walking on the beach, the conviviality of a good meal and wine with friends, and he even went to surgery and watched me operate. He never lost his sense of wonder or his love of learning. I have long since forgotten the math that he taught me. But he taught all of his students to think clearly, objectively, and logically, and to communicate with precision and exactitude. I often recall his lessons when I have a difficult problem to solve, and think how he would approach it. In a man's life, perhaps one has two or three teachers who have been profound influences on his direction and maturation. I can say one person stands head and shoulders above the rest, as the prime mentor of my life, save my own father. My relationship with Professor Mann shaped and enhanced my life as it did to countless others, and we have been made so very much richer by the association. I am deeply grateful to him for all that he gave me. 

William Robert Mann congratulates the first black undergraduate students admitted to the University of North Carolina 9-15-1955
Professor William Robert Mann congratulates the first three black undergraduate students to be admitted to the University of North Carolina on September 15, 1955. He is shaking hands with Leroy Frasier. His brother Ralph Frasier is on the right and on the left is John T. Brandon.

At this time there was strong resistance in Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina to admit black students. Robert Mann was the only professor to formally greet the students. A few years later, in 1957, a leading member of the UNC medical faculty, Dr. W. C. George, wrote a four piece article entitled The Negro Race is Biologically Inferior for the Daily Tar Heel that argued against ever integrating the races. Even then, few on the campus or the community took issue with this belief.

The W. Robert Mann Award is given each year for excellence in actuarial science. Plaques bearing the names of winners are located in the undergraduate study room in Hanes Hall.

In 1967 Professor Mann received the Tanner Outstanding Teacher Award from the University of North Carolina.

W. Robert Mann Fund

This is a fund of the Curriculum in Mathematical Sciences that honors the outstanding undergraduate teacher who retired in 1986 after a 37-year career at UNC-CH. The fund enriches the educational experience for students in the curriculum by providing career information, support for technology, and possibilities for interaction for students in that program.

Contributions to this fund can be sent to:
     Ms. Rhonda Inman
     Department of Mathematics, CB #3250
     Phillips Hall
     University of North Carolina
     Chapel Hill, NC 27599

You can also contribute through the UNC Development Office by mailing a check made out to:
     UNC-Chapel Hill to Office of University Development
     Post Office Box 309
     Chapel Hill, NC 27514-0309
and designating that it go to the Department of Mathematics. You can contribute online through the web site carolinafirst.unc.edu

Final words from Amanda (a college professor and artificial intelligence researcher)

While it's not as exciting as my friend who managed to buy a many-hundred-dollar-valued autographed book for a couple of bucks recently, I had what I think was a very cool used book experience yesterday. I spotted a copy of Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind on the $1 rack outside the local used book store, which I've been curious to skim. Well, it was on the cheap rack because there are notes scattered through the margins of the book, but they're tidy notes, so I decided to buy it anyway. However, on closer examination, the book was labelled as having belonged to a "W. Robert Mann", which any math major will immediately identify as the name of one of the authors of Advanced Calculus the classic . Granted, it's plausible that multiple people would share this name, but the previous owner was also kind enough to note that the book was purchased at McIntyre's Book Shop, which is in Pittsboro, NC, not far from UNC, where Dr. Mann is listed as a professor emeriti. And the comments clearly come from someone fluent in mathematics. So, I am going to chose to believe that I'll be reading the criticisms of the man whose textbook introduced me to advanced mathematics. His very first note reads:

One of the seductive fascinations of mathematics is that every subject turns out, in the long run, to be merely a small part of something else.
William Robert Mann



Rolf Leemann      8:07 AM Tue 10/5/2010

Reading your bio with great interest. Dr. Hal Kushner&#39;s note<br \>is fresh and moving. <br \><br \>I wonder whether you could tell me where I can find more about<br \>Prof. W. Robert Mann and his children? <br \><br \>With many thanks for your kind attention<br \><br \>Rolf Leemann

Nora Esthimer      12:29 PM Tue 11/10/2009

What a great tribute to Dr. Mann. I knew him as the father of a classmate going through Chapel Hill public schools and then, when I worked at UNC, as an always courteous gentleman with a nice smile. I avoided math classes at all cost--my loss not to have known him as a professor!

Skip Eubanks      8:34 PM Tue 9/22/2009

Earlier this summer I bought the paperback version of W. Robert Mann&#39;s Advanced Calculus from Amazon for $131.00, and it was worth the price.

Helen Peacock      5:57 AM Tue 9/22/2009

I knew Bob Mann as a devoted member of St Thomas Moore Catholic Church. For years he delivered meals-on-wheels to elderly members of the Chapel Hill community. God bless Bob.

Floyd Clark      7:48 PM Mon 9/21/2009

Thanks for your profiles of the people and places that have made Chapel Hill great.

Kathryn Mann      5:13 PM Mon 9/21/2009

Dr. Kushner has captured the essence of &quot;Grandfather Mann&quot; (as he referred to himself in my presence), perfectly in this piece. I too have been blessed with a lasting impression that I will continue to turn to for inspiration and guidance throughout my life. He was penetratingly and instantly insightful, charming and gracious in his manners, and incredibly curious about so many subjects and certainly any person he met, regardless of rank and station. I could ask him a question on almost any topic even into his late seventies and his knowledge of it would astound me.<br \><br \>Just 5 minutes into my first meeting with him at seventeen (there is a story behind this for another time), during which I expressed uncertainty about what I would do with my life (studies, vocation, etc.) he thought for a moment and said, &quot;You need not worry. You are the kind of person who will excel at any endeavor you set your mind to.&quot; He said this in a slightly gravelly, slow southern drawl, yet with such a definitive tone, that it removed any discomfort or anxiety that I had around not knowing exactly the direction that I would take. <br \><br \>Knowing Robert, I am amazed but not at all surprised to learn that he was the only professor to greet the first black undergraduates at UNC. He was the kind of person who did what he thought was right in a given situation, without regard to accepted norms or social etiquette. He was forward-thinking and would not allow status quo beliefs to enter into the logical reasoning process that was his genius, enabling keen insights into mathematics as well as individuals and relationships.

Reed Collins      7:36 AM Mon 9/21/2009

I was a student of Dr Mann&#39;s in the late 1970s, and enjoyed his lectures more than any other professor I had at the university.

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