Passionate Mathematician

Seymour “Sy” Schuster

When campus support staff at Minnesota’s Carleton College went on strike, math professor Seymour “Sy” Schuster wouldn’t cross the picket line. But he knew students needed his course, so his class met in a dorm basement. Wrote former student Martha Knutson: “I admired and appreciated that his choices were made on principle and that personal inconvenience didn’t matter.”

Schuster ’47 Lib ’53 PhD Sci was an accomplished mathematician who wrote several books and more than 30 academic papers. He “pursued proofs as a creative endeavor,” says his son, Paul. He was popular with both math majors and non-math majors who chose to take his classes, citing his patience, humor, generous office hours, and one-on-one tutoring. “He saw something in math most of us miss,” Paul says, “and so he wanted other people to see it, too.” When Paul went to college, someone asked Schuster if his son would pursue mathematics or the humanities. Sy’s answer: “Math is one of the humanities,” says Paul, who majored in English.

Students learned lessons from Schuster outside his classroom, too. A lifelong activist for social justice, inclusion, and diversity, he backed underdogs and fought for causes ranging from the immorality of the Vietnam War to fellow faculty members wrongly denied tenure. Close friend Paul Wellstone was elected to the U.S. Senate with Schuster’s help in a campaign hatched at Carleton, where he taught for 31 years before his 1994 retirement. The math department created the Sy Schuster Leadership in Diversity and Inclusion Fund in his honor.

Schuster’s cohorts for regular poker games and fishing trips included people with doctorate degrees and high school diplomas, scholars in subjects ranging from philosophy to chemistry. He died Oct. 31, 2020, days after testing positive for COVID-19; he was 94. Besides his son, Schuster is survived by a daughter and a brother. —Meri-Jo Borzilleri