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Paul Sally, researcher, ‘pirate’ professor of math; at 80

Paul Sally (left), shown with MIT professor Sigurdur Helgason, was known for his spirited classroom presence.Evan Richman/Globe Staff/File 2007/Boston Globe

A mathematician who could turn a phrase as precisely as he could solve an equation, Paul Sally was so quotable that students created a second Wikipedia page for him to house his pithy asides.

“Your only excuse for missing the test is if you’re dead and your funeral is that day,” was a favorite, and to prove he wasn’t kidding, he once used a student’s cellphone in the classroom to rebook the young man’s flight to accommodate an exam. The story illustrated a rare exception to Dr. Sally’s legendary dislike of cellphones, which prompted quotes equally colorful, if somewhat less printable, and anecdotes about him lining up students to stomp on offending phones.


A high-level researcher who was just as devoted to teaching, Dr. Sally had an epiphany right out of college, the first moment he taught a class at Boston College High School, his alma mater. “This is just where I belong,” he told the University of Chicago Magazine in 2008. “I just have this incredible desire to teach.”

For more than 45 years he taught at the university, spreading his love of mathematics with evangelical fervor while serving as the first director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, which created the widely used “Chicago math program.” He also helped found the Seminars for Endorsement of Science and Mathematics Educators. Although that program initially was designed to improve Chicago public school teachers, he created a similar venture a dozen years ago through the Harvard Extension School to bring back to Boston his core belief, expressed in another of his aphorisms: “To teach real mathematics, you better know some.”

Dr. Sally, whose spirited classroom presence became even more memorable through the years as the ravages of diabetes led him to sport an eye patch and support his 6-foot-3 frame on titanium legs, died of congestive heart failure Dec. 30 in University of Chicago Medical Center. He was 80, lived in Chicago, and as one of his sons noted, would have appreciated that his date of death was a numeral anagram: 12-30-2013.


Though his academic prowess earned scholarships to Boston College High School and Boston College, Dr. Sally was just as skillful with the more basic math of basketball scores. Growing up in Roslindale and Dedham, he led high school and CYO teams into state championship tournaments. In a 1954 CYO senior division semifinal, he was the leading scorer with 36 points. He even got to play in the old Boston Garden.

“He’s probably the world’s only research mathematician who can say he sank hook shots on the parquet,” said his brother, Frank of Dedham.

By his own accounting, Dr. Sally was a tardy arrival to pure mathematics, having relied on his ability to ace tests as he coasted through high school classes.

“I was very late by the standards of this field,” he told the Globe in 2007. “Mathematicians are supposed to do their best work at 21. When I was that age, I was still dribbling a basketball down Dorchester Avenue.”

After getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston College and a doctorate from Brandeis University, all in math, he accumulated a shelf of teaching awards and once led the American Mathematical Society. His research resulted in books and papers, centered on “things the average person has no reason to understand,” he joked in the 2007 interview, when he was back in the area to lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on supercuspidal representations of p-adic groups.


He met his wife, the former Judith Donovan, when both were graduate students at Brandeis. She taught at Northwestern University and the two coauthored the books “Trimathlon: A Workout Beyond the School Curriculum” and “Roots to Research: A Vertical Development of Mathematical Problems.”

“One piece of advice if you want to have a happy marriage,” Dr. Sally told the University of Chicago Magazine: “Marry a woman who’s smarter than you are.”

Born in Boston, Paul J. Sally Jr. was the second of four siblings. His father was a general contractor and mason who built chimneys; both parents insisted that all their children go to college.

“He was a vibrant man with a real great thirst for living and sharing with others, both in terms of his academic interests and his athletic interests,” said Dr. Sally’s son Stephen Moeller-Sally of Harvard.

Among many honors, Dr. Sally received the University of Chicago’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching and provost’s teaching award; the American Mathematical Society Award for distinguished teaching; and the Boston College Alumni Award for Excellence in Education. He also formerly chaired the University of Chicago’s mathematics department and had been a resident at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.


Frank Sally said that when he spoke at a memorial service in January, the four words that best described his brother were “courage, determination, perseverance, and honor.” Those characteristics, he said, were expressed through his brother’s polymath intellect, and the way he faced physical challenges.

In his 70s, Dr. Sally still kept 30-pound dumbbells under his desk for curl-ups, long after diabetes had dispensed with the legs he relied on to leap for layups in his basketball days. And though he lost his legs, he bristled at any suggestion that he lose an inch of height.

“When I had my second leg cut off, my surgeon and prosthetist got together and said, ‘Look, Paul, if we lower your center of gravity, you’ll have much more balance,’ ” he told the Maroon, the University of Chicago’s student newspaper, in 2009. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They really thought they were going to shorten my height by about five or six inches. When you learn to exist and address the world at a certain height – and 6-3 is a very nice height to address the world from – you want to stay there.”

Legally blind by the end of his life due to macular degeneration, Dr. Sally continued to teach through last fall at the university “with, as he liked to put it, no legs, no eyes, and no hair,” his son Stephen said. “One of the things he liked to say is, ‘I have two speeds: go and stop.’ Most of the time it was go, and that was one of the reasons he had no interest in retiring.”


A service has been held for Dr. Sally, who in addition to his wife, son, and brother leaves two other sons, David of Ithaca, N.Y., and Paul III of Chicago; a sister, Elizabeth Massey of Amherst; and eight grandchildren.

Known affectionately as the “math pirate” or “professor pirate” because of his eye patch, Dr. Sally often was coated with fine dust by the time he finished teaching, not least because he spent so much time at the blackboard, letting a piece of chalk dangle from his mouth as if it was a cigar. He also made clear that he was available at all hours, even awakened past midnight, so long as students addressed him properly in the classroom or on the phone.

“If you call me and you say ‘Yo, Sally,’ it means you’re part of the club,” he told the Maroon. “There’s something called Sally’s Gang. Once you get into it you can never leave. And that means you can call me, any time day or night, anywhere you are in the world, or anywhere I am in the world and say ‘Yo, Sally,’ and you’re in business.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@ globe.com.