Dr Tommy Whitelaw: An appreciation

FEW if any mathematics lecturers gathered a student following anything like that amassed by Dr T.A. “Tommy” Whitelaw of Glasgow University, who died on January 21at the age of 77 after a period of illness.

He kept in close touch with hundreds of students in what he called his Former Student Family. They remembered him as an exceptional teacher, deeply committed adviser, and a unique personality.

Tommy Whitelaw, born on April 26, 1943, was Glasgow University through and through, for nearly 50 years.

A star performer in the University Bursary Examination of 1960, then an undergraduate from 1960 to 1964 – a period which in later life he saw as the making of him – he graduated with first-class honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (nowadays, mundanely, Physics).

After three years at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained his doctorate for a thesis in group theory, he immediately returned to Glasgow as an assistant lecturer, lecturer then senior lecturer in Mathematics, where he remained until his retirement.

It is as a teacher that he will be best remembered, perhaps the last in Glasgow always to wear a gown when teaching and invigilating. It was expected in 1967, and he saw no reason to doff it until his retirement in 2007.

As precise in language as in mathematical expression, he nevertheless saw everything through the eyes of the learner, including those who had to work hard in order to keep up.

His lectures were a model of lucidity, and his clarity of exposition, his deep concern for those he was teaching, and his engaging, eccentric personality made him extremely popular with students, whose names he seemed never to forget.

His many years of exceptional teaching were recognised in a special award by the University in July 2006.

Dr Whitelaw wrote two undergraduate textbooks: An Introduction to Abstract Algebra, and An Introduction to Linear Algebra. Unlike many an academic text masquerading as an “introduction”, these took the student by the hand, while losing no precision.

He was also an especially dedicated adviser of studies; even after retiring from teaching, he spent two days a week guiding mathematics and science students. Many have reason to be grateful for his sound advice and help in times of personal crisis.

Hundreds of those students and advisees remained close to Tommy after graduating.

Initially, he wrote them countless personal letters, before establishing a habit of “General Epistles” which brought everyone up to date on his news, developments in the Mathematics Department (not always to his liking), life in Troon, and updates on many former students.

Nothing delighted him more than to record their achievements – at length – except perhaps to note when the children of former students joined the group.

Sometimes these letters contained cricket curiosities, perhaps from the 60 editions of Wisden on his shelves, but more often puzzles, for he was an inveterate puzzler. “Dr Lexalba’s” Christmas puzzle event was for 30 years a regular fixture, enjoyed even by those for whom solutions were a rarity.

In his letters he set not just mathematical challenges, but crosswords (for which he won prizes, as he did for Christmas carol composing) and other squibs.

Memorably, one Epistle included a question from a long-ago Bursary Exam; its difficulty provided ammunition for those who believed that school mathematical standards had slipped.

A stream of former students visited him in Glasgow and, after his retirement, in Troon, where he delighted to entertain.

Many had attended the grand party in the Students’ Union to celebrate his 33 years as a lecturer and 25 years as an adviser of studies, but over a hundred of them went to Troon to celebrate his 70th birthday, where they regaled him with operatic music and other performances.

Troon was the other centre of his life. Dux of Marr College in 1960, he much later became a governor there. A dedicated Christian, he was an elder of Troon Old Parish Church.

A skilled pianist and lover of classical music, he was a member of the Church choir and a founding member of the Troon Chorus.

From 1954 onwards, he kept detailed Troon weather records, becoming a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. His holidays were always spent in Pitlochry, where he was a devotee of the Festival Theatre.

Further evidence of his intellectual flexibility was how he taught himself reasonably fluent levels of Romanian and Czech in order to converse with the young summer staff at his favourite hotel.

Tommy never married, but had a close-knit family on his mother’s side, taking a keen interest in the achievements of his cousins’ children and grandchildren.

He will be deeply missed by them, and by many students and former colleagues.

The University’s book of remembrance can be found at tawhitelaw.net (“one of the most characteristic and inspirational lecturers that I have ever met”, runs a typical entry in the online book), and a commemorative event will be held at the University when circumstances permit.