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February 12, 2008
By John Trent
For math students, a course with Don Pfaff begins and ends with one thing.
The Hawaiian shirt.
“I always tell my students, ‘There’s a dress code around here … you need to dress at least as well as I do,’” says Pfaff, whose career at Nevada dates back to 1961.
He says he started wearing Hawaiian shirts to class way back in 1971. Originally a suit and tie man, the wardrobe change came about as he taught Algebra 101 via closed circuit television. His white shirts blinded his audiences. So, his wife created a polyester shirt that was in Pfaff’s words, “Almost like Joseph’s coat of many colors. I called it my ‘star shirt.’”
The star shirt, of course, was a hit. Pfaff’s suit-and-tie look was quickly abandoned.
“They’re sort of my trademark, my calling card, what people remember me by,” Pfaff says of his Hawaiian shirts.
Of course, there is much more to Pfaff’s career at Nevada than a simple bit of tropical, Technicolor fabric.
Pfaff, 71, an associate professor, has served as main author of the Nevada Prize Exam in Mathematics, given annually to high schools throughout the state, for 47 years. It is estimated at least 50,000 Nevada high school students have taken the examination.
Pfaff is also credited with creating what is commonly known as “Pfaffology,” three courses — Math 373 Theory of Positive Integers, Math 474 Sets and Numbers, Math 475 Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometry — that serve as the heart of the University’s curriculum for all future high school math teachers.
“Don has had such a huge influence on the high school math teachers of the state,” says Ed Keppelmann, the College of Science’s director of outreach and a colleague of Pfaff’s for more than 15 years. “In fact, it would be hard indeed to find a high school senior who either never took the prize exam or never had a teacher who either took a class from Don or who took a similar state-required course from Don.”
Pfaff is recipient of numerous teaching and outreach awards, including the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teaching Award, awarded each year to the institution’s top instructor.
Says Alexander Lang, who was named a Westfall Scholar as the Department of Mathematics & Statistics’ top graduating senior in December 2007: “I transferred from TMCC (Truckee Meadows Community College) and Dr. Pfaff’s class was already full. He didn’t know me from the man on the moon, but he found a way to let me into his class. That shows you how nice he is. He’s completely changed my view of mathematics.”
Such praise makes Pfaff a bit uneasy. In fact, any talk of his career — its accomplishments, its longevity — inevitability leads to a self-deprecating quip.
Take his longevity on campus. With some prodding, the story surfaces that he is about to become or already has become the longest-serving professor in the institution’s 134-year history.
Originally, he says, his plan was to retire in 2009, after 48 years. His reasoning was simple. The legendary J.E. Church, a professor of classics and the father of snow science in the Sierra, is widely credited with the longest-serving tenure at 45 years. It was widely believed that Church had served 47 years; then it was discovered, however, that Church actually was given a three-year leave of absence in the 1890s to get his Ph.D.
So, in this sense, Pfaff already has the record.
“In fact,” he says, always up to test the mental acuity of his audience, “I set a brand new record for longevity for campus recently.”
Without thinking, a visitor to his office on the sixth floor of the Ansari Business Building falls for the bait.
“When did you set the record?” the visitor asks, mind in overdrive, thinking that the University has somehow missed an important anniversary.
“Today,” Pfaff says.
“Today?” the visitor asks, slightly confused.
“Today,” Pfaff continues, his voice steady, as straightforward as a page full of binomials, without the slightest hint of irony. “The previous record holder was me … yesterday.”
For a man who deals often with humor, and who is known to make connection with all types of students, it is interesting to note that Pfaff doesn’t think of himself as outgoing.
“I am, by nature, a shy person,” he says, recalling the terror he felt the night before he was to teach his first class, while a teaching assistant at the University of California, Berkeley. The experience made him “physically sick the night before.”
“It takes a lot of energy for me to project a non-introverted person,” he adds.
Now that he is nearing a half-century at the University, don’t expect Pfaff to change his approach anytime soon. The Hawaiian shirts are sure to remain. As will the man, who is much like the way he teaches: interesting, informal, but profoundly precise in his ability to get to the heart of everything he does.
“I ran across a picture of myself when I was 12 years old recently,” says Pfaff, who grew up in Pasadena, Calif. “I was leaning against a wall in a certain, special way. That’s exactly how I still lean against a wall, today.”
The only thing missing from the photo: a Hawaiian shirt.