Celebrating Professor Lance Littlejohn's 70th Birthday
November 12, 2021
Dr. Lance Littlejohn's 70th Birthday Colloquium
On Friday, November 12, 2021, friends and faculty of the Baylor Mathematics Department gathered to celebrate the career of Dr. Lance Littlejohn. Dr. Fritz Gesztesy shared about Lance's life and mathematical journey from childhood to college years and beyond.
The first time I heard of Lance Littlejohn, I was at a program at the Newton Institute in Cambridge. I had been invited to interview at Baylor and one of the program organizers, Malcolm Brown, said Baylor had recently hired an excellent new head of department, Lance. He also told me Lance was famous for knowing everyone in the mathematics community. Coming from Malcolm this was quite a surprise as until this point, I would have thought that this description was most suited to Malcolm himself, who seemed to have a story about everyone who was visiting the six-month program. However, Malcolm’s description was, if anything, understated. In a profession well served with introverts, the importance of characters like Lance, combining great mathematics with the ability to connect people and start collaborations cannot be underestimated. Congratulations on 70 years and many happy returns!
From a lecturer’s point of view, Lance Littlejohn was a supportive, encouraging chair. He knew the value of an occasional “pat-on-the-back”. Hearing the simple words, “Thank you for all you do for our students” meant so much! He had high standards for teaching as well as for research, so that made the simple words of encouragement both valuable and motivating.
Lance is outstanding in the area of leadership and in the area of personal teaching and research but I want to talk about another area. Lance is one of the kindest and most supportive individuals I have ever known. He has encouraged me many times and understands that positive reinforcement will motivate an individual more than anything else. I recall that once we had a postdoc from another country and the postdoc’s father became quite ill. Without hesitation, Lance took over his classes for two weeks so that he could go home even though Lance was as busy as anyone in the Department. Lance was always going out of his way to support his colleagues. Lance would stand up for what he thought was right and I saw him involved in some very intense discussions about what was best for Baylor, but after the discussion he would speak highly of those with whom he had disagreed and support them in every way he could. I’m glad that Lance was my chair for all those years!
I consider myself fortunate to have known Lance as a colleague and a friend and to have worked with him in the Math Department in my role of Associate Chair and in the Dean’s office during my stay there. He even let me play at Interim Chair in 2016. However, my favorite “Lance Littlejohn Story” happened during the 2011 spring semester. I was scheduled for surgery and asked Lance to take over my Partial Differential Equations class while I was out. I asked him to cover the section in the text on Bessel functions. A week later when I told him that I was ready to return, he said, “No, I’m not through. Give me a few more days.” After a week with him asking my class to prove various properties of Bessel functions using power series representations, he let me have my class back. But for a while there I thought I had lost it forever. It just shows that when Lance is passionate about something, whether it is the reputation of the department or an undergraduate math class, you had better stay out of his way.
While growing up in Ontario, if there was anyone who would not have been expected to become a world-class research mathematician, it would have been Lance Littlejohn. In fact, if he had followed family tradition, he would instead have been a gamekeeper like his father and grandfather in Scotland. Also, the good-looking, charismatic athlete in high school does not usually have the academic drive to become a Ph.D mathematician. Like most kids, Lance’s dream was to play professional baseball (he is still a fanatical fan of the Detroit Tigers) and had some professional tryouts but it became apparent that dream was not to be realized. Lance played on several championship teams in the St. Thomas (Ontario) area and one of them, the London Majors, was inducted into the 2015 London Sports Hall of Fame. Lance reluctantly began university at the University of Western Ontario in 1970 and credits his older brother Charles with forcing him to go to college. Once Lance started with math, he just kept going and earned his doctorate from Penn State in 1981.
Lance was a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio from 1981 to 1983, but being Canadian, he had trouble dealing with the Texas heat (ironic, since he ended up back in Texas in 2007). Lance was a professor at Utah State from 1983 to 2006. He taught his math classes and did research in analysis, especially in the area of orthogonal polynomials arising from differential equations. In addition, he gave of his time and effort to coach the Logan High baseball team. With his wife, Wendy, he was also busy raising their children Alex and Mary. Lance does say that he appreciates the sacrifices that his family has made over the years that allowed him to be very committed to his career.
In 2007, Baylor University was fortunate that Lance decided to come to Waco, Texas. He was chair of the math department from 2007 to 2019. He gave a great effort on behalf of the department, wanting to retain good undergraduate teaching and to advance the research done in the department. He succeeded in both and regarding the research effort, the many great professors that were hired under his leadership are evidence of that success. By any metric, the math department has made tremendous strides under Lance’s leadership. While chair, Lance had a knack of uplifting people and making them feel important to the department. He is compassionate, and as a case in point, we mention that he found a way for a graduate student to receive his doctorate in the midst of great difficulties surrounding the student. He once taught an extra class that was needed without telling anyone about it. He worked as Associate Dean for Research in the Graduate School from 2012-2016. Lance enjoyed his time in the graduate school and regretted having to step down because of health issues.
Lance managed to keep his research going well, even with the time demands of being chair. He has about 119 publications with about 72 collaborators from around the world. These works are over a broad range of topics. With talent, drive, and a desire to help others, Lance has come far in his life and the Baylor Math Department has been a big beneficiary.
I was here when Baylor decided to become a Research One institution. For that to work in our department, we needed new leadership. I was Chair when we were considering hiring Lance. As soon as I met him, I knew he was the person we needed, even though I didn’t know all his pluses. One of my accomplishments as Chair was to keep him as a candidate. I remember the day he came to the department and offered to withdraw his application due to medical issues. I said NO! We needed him to take us to the next level. I must have persuaded him, but I had to be Chair for a year longer. During this time, we exchanged many emails as I suggested things he should ask for. The Dean noticed. My last task as Chair was to move our department to the science building while Sid Richardson was being improved. Lance moved us back. We had many discussions, but he learned his job very quickly. And he did take us to the next level.
Even to this day, my kids remember the nice man in the Math Department who took them down to get treats when they visited. That man was Lance.