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Mathematician and longtime University faculty member Ralph Raimi dies at 92

Ralph Raimi teaching a mathematics course at the University of Rochester in 1994 (Photo credit/Jessica Raimi)

Ralph Raimi, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Rochester and a noted consultant on K–12 math education, died on January 2, 2017. He was 92.

Raimi joined the University faculty in 1952 as a teaching fellow, ultimately becoming a full professor of mathematics in 1966. He had far-reaching impact in multiple roles as a University administrator, including as associate dean for graduate studies in the College of Arts and Science from 1967 to 1975.

After being named professor emeritus in 1995, Raimi became active in efforts to reform K–12 math education. Considered one of the top education experts in the country, he was a mathematics curriculum consultant to states across the country.

In the field of mathematics, Raimi was best known for his writings on the first-digit problem—also known as Benford’s Law—which was discovered by astronomer Simon Newcomb in 1881. Raimi’s article “The Peculiar Distribution of First Digits” appeared in the December 1969 issue of Scientific American. He continued to receive queries on the subject thereafter, as the first-digit phenomenon has been increasingly used to detect election, scientific, and accounting fraud.

“It is very unusual for Scientific American to devote long articles to mathematics,” says John Harper, a professor of mathematics and Raimi’s former colleague. “But Ralph had such a rigorous attitude of mind and a great ability to write clear, straightforward prose that it was only fitting that his important work on this problem was featured in this way.”

Raimi also wrote widely on subjects outside of mathematics, self-publishing a collection of essays and a history of his high school debating society, and writing many articles and editorials on various subjects in venues from Harper’s Magazine to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

“Ralph had strong opinions, but his opinions were well thought out and insightful, and he was a fantastic and prolific writer,” says Steve Gonek,  a professor of mathematics who worked with Raimi at the University for 15 years. “He was extremely active in the College administration in various forms. In the math department, he took knowledge and learning very seriously, but had an excellent sense of humor as well. He was a very interesting person to know.”

Beyond mathematics, Raimi’s greatest love was for music. He studied flute at the Eastman School and, according to his daughter Jessica, he especially loved the Eastman School’s Kilbourn Hall, where in his later years he often attended two chamber concerts a week during the concert season.

He had other interests; an avid photographer who developed photos in his own darkroom, Raimi also made wine from Finger Lakes grapes and received several winemaking awards. He traveled widely with his wife, Sonya, a prominent Rochester stage actress who died in 2002.

Raimi was born and raised in Detroit, and received a BS in physics and an MS and PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan. He served in the Army Air Force from 1943 to 1946, attaining the rank of first lieutenant. He did not see combat, but spent the war training in electronics and repairing radar equipment. He received a Fulbright Fellowship to spend the 1949–50 academic year in Paris with his wife, during which he attended courses at the Sorbonne.

Raimi is survived by his two daughters, Diana and Jessica, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

His website contains many of his writings. Raimi’s letters, publications, and correspondence on “New Math” and other topics will also soon be available for researchers in the River Campus Libraries’ Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation. Some of Raimi’s notable correspondents include artist M.C. Escher, physicist Richard Feynman, and historian and philosopher of education Jacques Barzun.

Contributions in Raimi’s memory may be made to the Eastman School of Music or to the Arthur S. Gale Memorial Prize fund. This prize was established in 1976 and is awarded annually at Commencement to a student receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics who, in the judgment of the mathematics faculty, has displayed the greatest achievement and promise in the field.

Contributions may be directed to:

Office of Advancement
Attn: Gift Office
Alumni & Advancement Center
‪300 E. River Rd.
Rochester, NY  14627

University flags will be lowered on January 17 in Raimi’s memory.

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