Arthur Oliver Lonsdale Atkin was born in Liverpool, England in 1925. He died on Dec 28, 2008 at 83 years of age. Oliver received a classical English education. He was sent to boarding school at age 9 and entered Cambridge in 1942 at the age of 16. In 1944, he joined the National Service, and because of his brilliant performance in mathematics he was invited to Bletchley Park to assist the war effort by attempting to break the German code. The outcome of the work of that team of scientists changed the course of the war. Following completion of his National Service, Oliver returned to Cambridge in 1947 and was awarded a doctorate in mathematics in 1952. He then took a position as Lecturer at Durham University where he met a student named Raynor Traube. They were married in 1959. Two surviving children, Henrietta and William, were born to the marriage. Following visiting research fellowships at The Universities of Maryland and Wisconsin, Oliver made a major life changing move by emigrating in 1970, with his family, to the United States. He had accepted a teaching position in mathematics at the University of Arizona.
Tragically, Raynor died just before, Christmas, during the families first year in Tucson leaving Oliver with two young children (ages 7 and 10) to raise on his own. Actually, they probably all raised each other. The children constantly tried to Americanize Oliver, while he tried to preserve the distinctive marks of British culture in them. The next life changing event was Oliver's acceptance of a Professorship in Mathematics at the University of Illinois, Chicago which included a relocation of the Family to the Village of Oak Park.
At UIC, Oliver's career flourished, and he established an international reputation for his work on number theory. He created several algorithms some of which proved extremely valuable to cryptographers. He was, thus, awarded a prestigious NSF grant award for Special Creativity.
Meanwhile, in the Village of Oak Park both William and Henrietta found a place in which to grow. It is commonly said "It takes a village to raise a child" and several of you here this morning acted as that village in supporting the children's growth while Oliver struggled with raising a family and forging a career.
Oliver was a complex multi-gifted man. In the arcane world of higher mathematics he forged an international reputation in number theory that involved him in many national and international conferences. In addition, Oliver was also a gifted musician. (That very special gift often coexists with the mathematical gift.) He expressed his musical gift for many years as an organist at various area churches, including here at Grace Episcopal Church.
As often happens with those blessed with mysterious gifts like those of mathematics and music, Oliver held an interior life that was somewhat out of step with the exterior world.
I first met Oliver, in 1981, at an event at Oak Park High School. I had become aware that his son William was dating my daughter Laura, and decided it was time that Oliver and I should meet. I walked up to Oliver, in a milling crowd after a school event, and introduced myself with the phrase "Hi, I'm Laura's father". All I got was a puzzled look, as if to say who is Laura, and who are you? How could he possibly keep up with all of William's friends? The larger social world always seemed a bit puzzling to Oliver, and he handled it in his own way.
As William and Laura's relationship developed, a wedding was planned, and Oliver, of course was the organist. He played his heart out. And when he stepped away from the console, in his own inimitable way, he was resplendent in a tuxedo complete with white tennis shoes.
At least that was somewhat better than his appearance at Orchestra Hall to accompany on the organ a trombone soloist competing at the annual high school competition sponsored by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He chose to wear a bright red sweat suit, and was blocked from the organ console until rescued by the soloist he was supposed to accompany. Oliver was indeed his own man. One colleague called him the most singular eccentric man on the planet.
His children, neighbors and friends frequently either marveled or were embarrassed by his exotic attire, Including shoveling snow with far less covering than appropriate for a winter day.One preoccupation was to focus on any misuse of the English language on signs or public notices, and to inform the violators, in writing, of their error. Many times he received an apology followed by an error correction.
His singing was not confined to church or choir practice. He would often burst out with a spontaneous operatic aria or a Shakespearian soliloquy while strolling down the street. Oliver freely enjoyed the interior world he inhabited.
Oliver, together with a community of people in Oak Park, did well in growing the Atkin children. Henrietta has forged a career in Music and church service, William is an independent contractor and there are 5 grandchildren making their way into the world.
As Oliver's retirement years progressed, the arrival of grandchildren, the frequent visits of his sister, "Auntie Leslie", from England, and the ministrations of Bill and Laura's home all began to thaw Oliver's rather strictured social interactions. He slowly became more sociable, but he always retained his own counsel.
With the recent diagnosis of cancer, Oliver heeded the advice of the Psalmist: who millennia ago penned the 90th Psalm
The days of our life are 70 years, or perhaps 80, if we are strong.
Even then their span is only toil and trouble.
They are soon gone, and we fly away.
So, teach us to count our days,
that we may gain a wise heart.
Oliver calculated his days, applied his heart to wisdom and placed his papers, though not his things, in order. (His organized paper trail is proving a special blessing to his children as they confront our government's bureaucracies.)
Oliver's house, however, retained his typical chaotic priorities; a pipe organ, a mandolin here, a harpsichord there with little attention to kitchen or bath.
Though Oliver's leaving was unexpectedly sudden, due to a fall, his priorities remained clear in how he left his things. Music was far more important than housekeeping.
As I contemplate the life that has left us, I am reminded of the piercing insight of the familiar words of John Donne
No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
it tolls for thee.
-- John Donne
This clod of life, that we are remembering, was washed from the shores of England, took root in Midwestern America, and gifted us with wisdom, music and most importantly the lives of the children who remain. We all stand diminished by the loss, but are gifted by that life as it was lived.