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Putnam "win" of 1964 highlights Bethel history of math excellence

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- On Dec. 5, 1964, six Bethel College students, along with thousands of other undergraduates across the United States and Canada, took a math exam. It wasn’t just any test--it was "the Putnam," a mathematics competition named for William Lowell Putnam (Harvard Class of 1882), who believed in the value of organized team competition to regular college studies. The Putnam is probably the most wide-ranging competition of its kind in North America.

Many Putnam winners have gone on to distinguished careers in mathematics and related fields, and to such high honors as the Fields Medal and the Nobel Prize.

When the results of the Putnam were announced in March of 1965, the Bethel College team had finished 14th, which still stands as the highest ranking the school has achieved.

So this year, the 40th anniversary of the Putnam "win," some Bethel alumni, with the help of Richard Rempel ’63, current professor of mathematics, and Arnold Wedel ’47, emeritus professor of mathematics, have decided to celebrate mathematics excellence at Bethel College.

One of those planning the celebration, which will take place March 17-18 on the Bethel College campus, is Gary Lyndaker ’68, one of the 1964 Putnam competitors. He now lives in Gravois Mills, Mo., and serves as chief information officer for the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

According to Lyndaker, Wedel considers the idea for a math celebration in 2005 to be "divine inspiration." Someone casually observed that "there was a lot of attention paid to the 20th anniversary of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team win," Lyndaker says. "The idea was that one could choose any decade anniversary to make a big celebration of a significant event.

"Second," he adds, "a few years ago there was a celebration of the mid-1950s Bethel basketball team that won the conference title. We thought that it was only appropriate to mark this big event [the Putnam] in Bethel’s history, and at the same time celebrate Bethel’s continued excellence in mathematics for nearly a century."

The "century" designation comes from the fact that the March event will honor the memory and Bethel career of David "Uncle Davy" Richert, who taught mathematics at Bethel from 1906 until his retirement in 1956; Bethel’s history of Putnam competition, beginning in the mid-1950s; and its participation in the Intercollegiate Math Exam. The latter was a competition among Kansas private colleges that ran from 1956-65. Bethel won six years out of ten, one year placing the top five finishers.

The planning committee (which also includes Dan Flickinger ’78, Andrew Rich ’77 and Paul Harms ’56, who with Wedel was a math professor and Putnam coach in 1964) for "A Celebration of Mathematics at Bethel College" has invited to the event all Bethel contestants in the Intercollegiate Math Exam as well as the Putnam.

In addition to Lyndaker, the 1964 Putnam contestants included: Donald K. Quiring ’66, Folsom, Pa., retired engineer for Boeing Corp.; Elias Toubassi ’66, Tucson, professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona (who, interestingly enough, got his PhD at Lehigh University under Samir Khabbaz ’54, the first Bethel student ever to take the Putnam exam); Kenneth E. Graber ’66, Fair Oaks, Calif., a strategic planning consultant; Robert Pankratz ’65, Homer, Ak., who taught high school math for 18 years and is now self-employed; and Silas Law ’66, Norman, Okla., a private businessman.

The Putnam competition in its current form--a six-hour exam with six problems to be solved in the morning and six more in the afternoon--began in 1938. Top five finishers regularly come from "the big math schools" such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, Duke, University of Toronto, Cornell and University of Waterloo (Ont.). "The top five schools in the competition [in 1964-65] were Cal Tech, MIT, Harvard, Case Western and University of California-Berkeley," Lyndaker recalls.

"The Putnam problems are so challenging, only the best math students compete," he adds. "Getting one problem out of 12 correct is usually good enough to put a contestant in the top third of the rankings. Getting half the problems correct is usually good for a top 50 individual ranking out of the 2,000 to 4,000 contestants."

The two-day celebration at Bethel College will include sessions for both reminiscing and solving "favorite problems." There will be a banquet with keynote speakers Khabbaz and Loren Larson, retired professor of mathematics at St. Olaf College (and graduate of Bethany College in Lindsborg), who has been involved in writing and administering the Putnam for many years. On Friday, March 18, a Bethel College convocation at 11 a.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium is open to the public, free of charge.

Rich, professor of mathematics at Manchester (Ind.) College, will emcee the convocation, which will include Larson describing the Putnam competition, members of the 1964 team talking about the experience and what they have done since, and a special presentation to honor the late Peter Flusser, donor of a significant mathematics collection to the Bethel College library in 2000.

Flusser, who died in 2002, was a graduate of Ottawa University. He won the Intercollegiate Math Exam in 1958. He taught at Ottawa, Fort Hays State University and Iowa Wesleyan before finishing his career at Kansas Wesleyan in Salina. He was a friend of Wedel’s and "his devotion to liberal arts education and respect for Bethel College and its math tradition" led him to make the gift to Bethel, Lyndaker says.

Besides marking the Putnam "win," Lyndaker says, "we really want this celebration to emphasize the diverse vocations of former Putnam competitors, as well as the overall excellence of Bethel’s math program."

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