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Benedict Freedman, Class of 1933

Published in the Los Angeles Times on March 4, 2012

Benedict Freedman (December 19, 1919 – February 24, 2012), long-time professor of mathematics and general studies at Occidental College and the author of 10 novels with his wife Nancy Freedman (who died in 2010), has died at the age of 92, February 24, 2012.

Dr. Freedman was born December 1919, the eldest child of David Noel and Beatrice Freedman. He graduated from Townsend Harris High School in 1933, and proceeded on to Columbia University at age 13 . Due to his father’s unexpected death at the age of 36, Freedman dropped out of Columbia to support his family just before his 17th birthday. He became a well-known comedy writer for radio personalities such as Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton; and later wrote comedy shows for the new medium of television, including My Favorite Martian. He met his beloved soulmate Nancy Mars, whom he wed on June 29, 1940 on the eve of World War II, beginning a marriage that lasted 70 years.

During the war, Freedman worked for Curtis Wright Tech and later Hughes Aircraft. He contributed the novel mathematical idea of using Newton’s ‘calculus of finite differences’ to design the Spruce Goose which is more appropriate than the usual “continuous calculus” for dealing with the mechanical properties of plywood. Afterwards, while continuing his television career, he also wrote novels with Nancy, including the bestseller Mrs. Mike, translated into dozens of languages, as well as This and No More, The Spark and the Exodus, The Apprentice Bastard, Lootville and Tresa. Fifty years after writing Mrs. Mike, Ben and Nancy returned to this popular work to publish two sequels, The Search for Joyful and Kathy Littlebird.

Well into their eighties, they continued to write together, producing two more works, There Was a Boy, There Was a Girl; and Us, A Duography about their own remarkable romance. Ben also wrote what he considered his major lifework, Rescuing the Future, a tome of political philosophy that saw human beings as ‘value makers,’ values as living things, and explored the practical implications of these conceptualizations for addressing global and interpersonal values conflict.

Freedman returned to college in 1966 fulfilling a lifelong dream to become a mathematician. He earned a B.A. from UCLA in 1968, and went on to complete his Ph.D. in Symbolic Logic. The correct interpretation of Godel’s theorems was his consistent mathematical interest from age 13 to 92. His mathematical analysis of the ‘four number game’ is posted on. Freedman was hired in the Department of Mathematics at Occidental College where he proceeded to teach for 25 years. He was the recipient of many teaching awards, and for several years directed Occidental’s General Studies program, introducing many curricular innovations to the campus. Although he often said he would like to die at the blackboard, in 1995 Freedman retired from Occidental. He and Nancy moved from their home in Malibu to Northern California to help raise their youngest granddaughter. They spent their remaining years vibrantly and creatively, mentoring their 8 grandchildren, writing, mastering computer technology, making musical video dramatizations starring their daughter Deborah, and laying a foundation for a website displaying all their copious artistic product.

Ben and Nancy Freedman had three children, Johanna Shapiro, professor of family medicine and director of the Program in Medical Humanities at UC Irvine School of Medicine; Michael Freedman, recipient of the prestigious Fields Medal and an internationally renowned mathematician whose current work with Microsoft is focused on development of the quantum computer; and Deborah Jackson, a music professor at UC Berkeley and well-known voice instructor and choral conductor in the Bay area. They also had eight grandchildren whom they cherished; and four great-grandchildren. Ben?s brothers Dr. Toby Freedman and Dr. David Noel Freedman predeceased him; he is survived by his sister Laurie Hayden.

Ben Freedman was a brilliant, wide-ranging thinker, a gifted mathematician, but also a polymath who could discourse knowledgeably – and humorously – on any subject. He was a scientist who had great respect for the scientific method, but also embraced the mystery and beauty found in Bach’s B Minor Mass, the sonnets of Shakespeare, and the poetry of Heine. He was an unparalleled raconteur, and often quoted the Jewish proverb, “A good story is truer than the truth.” Beyond his intellectual attainments, he was an unfailingly kind and generous man to his family, friends, and students. Former students revered him decades after he was their professor because of the wise life counsel he offered them, in addition to teaching them quadratic equations and calculus. His family gratefully acknowledged him as their patriarch because of his complete trustworthiness and goodness. In his last days, even his nurses and aides came to love him. His life is perhaps best summed up with a line he wrote in Rescuing the Future, “Between despair and faith lies hope.”