Professor Gupta's final exam: Passing grades for all
Foundation Professor Chaitan Gupta remembered for a brilliant life, teaching career
Vipin Gupta knew the idea for a memorial service sounded a little eccentric and a bit out there.
"What is this, this idea of a 'final exam' for my father," Gupta recently recalled. He paused and smiled and thought of the Oscar-winning Ron Howard film, "A Beautiful Mind," starring Russell Crowe as the troubled, yet brilliant Nobel Prize mathematics winner John Nash. "Have I gone too far with this idea ... and gone to this delusional John Nash state of mind?"
Actually, no. On June 15, in a fitting tribute to one of the University's distinguished professors, Foundation Professor Chaitan P. Gupta, a campus memorial service called a "Final Exam on Life Fundamentals," was held in the Redfield Auditorium of the Davidson Mathematics and Science Building.
Gupta, 74, a member of the faculty of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics from 1992 before retirement in 2008, passed away on April 26 from a stroke two weeks after having heart bypass surgery.
Gupta's campus career was notable. It included being named a Foundation Professor in 2002; serving as chairperson of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and shepherding the department through one of its most important periods of growth and productivity; his highly influential and productive research in ordinary differential equations that included work with many co-authors from all over the world, including his seminal work on multi-point non-linear boundary value problems; he served as a Foster Fellow at the Department of State for 1999-2001, playing a key role in the State Department's missile count verification efforts; and he continued to be a prominent figure in the University's rural math and campus math tutoring efforts, including a stint as Director of the University's Math Center.
The campus memorial service was two months in the making. No detail was too small. Vipin Gupta introduced himself and his sister, Kavita, and brother, Kaitan, as the exam's "proctors" as "Professor Gupta had a higher priority commitment today." Blue exam books provided by Northern Illinois University - where Gupta established his career as a math professor - were distributed to all attendees. Table tents were constructed to relay meaningful messages, using symbols for union and key intersections in Gupta's life, including carefully constructed acronyms of the many posts and positions Gupta had held during his career.
The service featured Gupta's family members, friends, and colleagues from his time in education and in business, who recalled a dignified, soft-spoken man who not only held himself to the highest standards, but always encouraged those he encountered and mentored to "strive for the impossible ... to always do your best."
"My father always said if you do your best, you will always get ahead," Vipin Gupta said.
The day was celebratory, an affirmation, in many respects to the timeless Hindu question, "How do you make God laugh? You tell him about your plans."
That was the guiding principle that Chaitan Gupta had hoped to apply to a math conference he had planned for next year with his business colleague, Manmohan Sharma.
"So we took 80 percent of what he had planned and switched it to his final exam," Vipin Gupta explained. "The remaining 20 percent was our creativity derived from him."
Those who attended were treated to a reliving of an amazing personal journey with profound impact on the lives of scores of family members, friends, students and colleagues that began in 1962. Vipin Gupta called it the beginning of an "audacious dream" for his father, when in that year the young Chaitan made the decision that he would come to America from New Delhi and pursue a life of education.
It was not an easy time to emigrate from Gupta's native India to the United States, Vipin Gupta said.
"In 1962 I am told that the United States was admitting only 1,000 Indians a year," he said. "But my father decides to seize this dream." Vipin Gupta, a physicist who works at Sandia National Laboratories, called it one of the "low probability events" of his father's otherwise orderly, mathematically logical life. Gupta happened to encounter a passport officer who turned out to be anything but a "faceless, emotionless bureaucrat" and guided the young man to official entry into the United States.
From that chance meeting came an impressive career. Gupta's colleagues recalled a warm, encouraging person whose own personal and professional accomplishments were the stuff of inspiration.
In fact, said his daughter, Kavita, herself a graduate of the University's Orvis School of Nursing, relationships - and valuing them dearly - were part of what made her father so special.
Kavita, in recalling some her own experiences as a nurse, said that the memorial service, and her father's life, were clear examples that, "Every relationship in life is a gift of grace - something to be appreciated, tended to and taken care and thought of as precious."
All of Gupta's colleagues and friends who spoke during the memorial couldn't have agreed more with Kavita's words.
Jerry Ridenhour, a mathematics colleague from Northern Illinois University, said Gupta was a gifted thinker, professor and researcher, "... always living, studying, thinking, reading mathematics." Yet Gupta was never so caught up in the cerebral intensity of his profession that he didn't stop and pause to make meaningful personal contact with those he knew.
"He was not just a friend," said Ridenhour, who like Gupta had to overcome a bout with prostate cancer. He recalled that when he had the disease, Gupta checked on him regularly, passing along good thoughts and advice on how to deal with prostate cancer treatment. "He was," Ridenhour added, "what I call a caring friend."
Ed Keppelmann, a University mathematics professor for 20 years, said it was Gupta who first contacted him about coming to work at Nevada.
Keppelmann, who at the time held a post-doctoral position at Texas A&M, traveled to Reno for an interview. He arrived on a Friday in spring 1993. The University was buzzing with the activity of the hundreds of young musicians who flock to campus every year during the Reno Jazz Festival. Also that day, the new Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism building had been formally dedicated, Keppelmann recalled.
But more exciting than the activity was the positive energy that Gupta, who had arrived on campus as chair of the Department of Mathematics a year earlier from Northern Illinois, emanated.
"Right from the start, it was absolutely clear he loved his new role," Keppelmann said. Gupta was already giving the department a new, exciting direction - something that the department 20 years later continues to benefit from, Keppelmann added. "He truly changed the climate and cleared the way for all that we have accomplished since then," Keppelmann said.
A few weeks later, when Gupta phoned to offer Keppelmann the job, there was no hesitation. Keppelmann said he didn't haggle, didn't negotiate, didn't try to use salary leverage of any form. He personally respected Gupta so much, and was so excited about the plans that Gupta had expressed for the department's future.
"I'm just saying that Chaitan's vision for the future was so exciting and engaging that I wanted to be there with him," Keppelmann said. "His ability to get things done and to get others motivated to get things done was nothing short of fantastic."
Gupta's granddaughter, Maya (a student at the Davidson Academy), said her grandfather, or her "Dadaji," "always had his own way of doing things." She said her grandfather often enjoyed a handful of almonds or a good bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats while watching the news on television. He was always a calm presence, always a serious listener who had the gift of always interjecting, even after her own "90-mile-per-hour" talking, the right comment, at just the right moment.
"He was a key piece of the puzzle that makes up life," she said.
"My father felt that any moment in life is a teaching moment," Vipin Gupta explained.
"He had a very strong opinion about final exams," Vipin Gupta said. "He felt that final exams should be a catapult that propels you upward with new skills, abilities and understanding. That's what we tried to do. Those who were there got the experience of a real final exam.
"It was practical, but it was also spiritual."
Ridenhour, the friend from Northern Illinois whose wife Vipin Gupta says "has my father's laugh down pat," summed up Gupta's life, and how well it was interwoven with the notion of a final exam, quite aptly: "If life is a final exam, I'm sure Chaitan passed with flying colors."
If anything, it was a Beautiful Final Exam, for a truly Beautiful Mind.
To view a musical slideshow of Professor Gupta's "Final Exam" memorial service, go to: