Remembering Professor Jerry Kevorkian

Submitted by Jack Coughlin on

We are saddened to share the news that Jerry Kevorkian, founding member of our department and one of its first chairs, passed away on Tuesday 11/9 after a 24 hour hospital stay. 

Jerry was a world expert on asymptotics and perturbation methods, applying them in a wide variety of application areas. In addition to supervising 14 PhD students, he (co-) authored a number of books, including a classic on multiple scale perturbation methods, with his PhD advisor Julian Cole, and an important textbook, still widely used, on a Green's function approach to partial differential equations. An avid sailor, Jerry became an equally avid woodworker in retirement. 

We encourage you to share your own memories and recollections of Professor Jerry Kevorkian. Please fill out the form located here


Jerry Kevorkian was a colleague and a mentor of mine in the years I was a faculty member at the University of Washington. Jerry Joined the faculty in Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1964, I joined in 1967. He was one of the reasons I chose the UW after graduation from Stanford as his research work was closely aligned to my research interests at the time – a rather esoteric part of applied mathematics, called singular perturbation theory. One physical example of this field is found in the theory of artificial earth satellite trajectories, the so called “critical inclination problem”. This was in the 60ties and there was a small group of researchers pursuing solutions to this problem. As is often the case in academia, there were some strong and differing opinions on how the problem should be attacked and, what should be considered as a solution thereof. Jerry’s work differed from that of others in the field and his approach appealed to me. Over the years, Jerry and I had many a conversation on this topic, often over a suitable beverage. When the concept of a department of Applied Mathematics was broached by Jerry (and Carl Pearson, Bill Criminale), I enthusiastically joined the team. Of course, I was still “wet behind the ears” as a faculty member not to recognize the penalties that such an endeavor would bring. As the saying goes, that is another story. 

The other side of the Jerry story is non-academic. When he joined the faculty of AA, he was new to Seattle and Washington. He became fascinated by sailing, but knew nothing about sailing. He joined the Corinthian Yacht Club and bought his first boat, an Ensign 21 foot day sailer. Then, given who he was, launched into the midweek evening sailing races off of Shilshole Marina. He needed crew and so I said, sure, why not. My job as crew was to execute the captain’s orders, some of which were, to be kind, bizzare. We learned quickly and did have some success. One such notable excursion had to do with an overnight race out to Port Angeles and back.  When night fell, so came the fog. I think pretty much everyone else elected to go and hug the shoreline on the way back. We, fueled by the traditional beverage of brave sailors (rum), decided to mainline it down the channel of the Straight of Juan de Fuca, even as we could hear (and sense) the freighters coming. When dawn broke, we came out of the fog bank off Edmonds and there were no other boats in sight. We sailed on down to Shilshole and learned that we were indeed the first boat, regardless of class, to finish. There are many other stories (how can there not be given that sailing was involved?) and the memories are priceless. Jerry went on to other boats, we shared sailing on the Sound as well as vacations in the Caribbean. The Caribbean vacations were bare boat charters. At this point, Jerry was a seasoned sailor meaning that he had a more mature approach that did not result in good “war stories”. He was also the best man at my wedding to Linda 42 years ago. Another aspect not noted is that he was an excellent cook and Linda and I enjoyed numerous dinners with Jerry and Seta.  I retired in 2002 and moved to Lake Wenatchee on the other side of the Cascades. We lost touch, but the memories linger on – a loss of someone who was an integral part of my life both academically as well as socially.

- Juris Vagners, Professor Emeritus (Aeronautical & Astronautical Sciences), University of Washington

I have very fond memories of my classes with Professor Kevorkian - one of the first that I took as a new graduate student in AMATH. Nearly 30 years later, now a professor of applied mathematics myself, his textbook is still an important and well-loved part of my collection of hardcopy books.

At the time I knew Professor Kevorkian, he had a jolly face with a balding head and completely white hair. By the end of every lecture, his nose and forehead would be a curious shade of blue, thanks to the whiteboard markers and his habit of rubbing his head or pulling on his nose while working at the board. It was hilarious to watch - and I learned to be very careful not to touch my own face while lecturing at a whiteboard!

Professor Kevorkian was working on a new edition of his textbook at the time, and offered 25 cents for every typo found by students. One of the graduate students became quite attached to this challenge, and appeared to emerge from his office almost daily, a few more coins in her pocket. I'm sure that Professor Kevorkian was most grateful, but he was naturally frustrated that there were so many typos and complained that she was going to bankrupt him!

I am grateful to have been a student of his, if only for a brief time, and am sad to hear of his passing. I am glad to have this opportunity to share some of my memories of him.

- Rebecca Tyson, Ph.D. alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1996. 

I was one of Jerry's PhD students (his last one), and have so many fond memories of Jerry. I was so saddened to hear of his passing. There were so many memorable moments, so I will just try to share a few here. Happy to share more if needed.

Maybe it was because I was his last student, but Jerry was very hands off with me and gave me an incredible amount of freedom to work and set my own goals in my thesis research. He always offered useful mathematical advice about the problems I had with my research.

I have many memories going out to eat with Jerry and Seta. We talked about food all the time. I remember that one of the most important (to the two of us) decisions about my thesis defense was where we were going to eat afterwards (assuming that I passed).

Photos: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

- Darryl Yong, Ph.D. Alumni, Ph.D. student of Jerry's, 2000

I am very sad to hear the news of Jerry's passing. He was highly influential to me. I have fond memories of taking his classes and talking with him about research. I learned a lot from him that I carry with me today.

As I have engaged with the broader applied math community over the years, I have learned that UW was known for a particular style of asymptotics and perturbation methods. Jerry's text on the subject is an important reference and I am very glad to have learned from that book from him personally (I'm not so sure I could have learned it without his teaching). I have become very proud of my UW asymptotics and perturbations "heritage." To this day, it guides much of what I do in my research and how I approach answering questions. Even though it's not so in fashion these days, I have been happy to find a broad variety of problems that benefit from the UW-style of asymptotics and perturbation methods in combination with more modern computational mathematics.

Jerry was incredibly funny. I really enjoyed his jokes (many of which I cannot commit to writing here). He liked to act like he was a cranky old man, but he was incredibly kind and warm. I remember eating lunches in the lounge with classmates and Jerry would walk in to use the sink and just jump into the conversation with a funny quip. It always seemed to me that he enjoyed not-so-innocently teasing me back when I was preparing for my qualifying exams -- I think he knew that I needed that back then. I loved hearing him talk about food, and enjoyed the meals we had together. He introduced me to Calvados, which I still enjoy to this day when I can get it and think of him everytime I do.

- Arnold D. Kim, Ph.D. Alumni, Applied Mathematics, 2000

I only overlapped with Jerry for two years (1999-2001), when I was a postdoc. I even sat in on a great class he taught on perturbation methods and Hamiltonian systems.

My main memories are of the lunches we enjoyed together on Thursdays. Apparently Jerry was on a diet, Doctor's orders, but he gleefully sinned on Thursdays, driving willing co-conspirators out to whichever new restaurant the Seattle Times recommended. I found out about a lot of good places this way! And I learned how to use chop sticks, which even my time in the Bay Area didn't force me to do. These lunches were not short, but they were fun, and a great source of information about all kinds of things, from research to departmental stories.

- Bernard Deconinck, Professor & Chair of Applied Mathematics

I so much enjoyed the many many lessons I learned from Dr. Kevorkian. In the early 1990's I took 3 quarters of Partial Differential Equations and 3 quarters of Perturbation Theory from Jerry. The lessons were absolutely engrossing. During my time as a graduate student in the department, he was always available for questions and inquiries, (but we were careful not to disturb him when he was snoozing in his Barker Lounger).

He was very warm and good natured and I will remember him always with great affection. My sympathies to his family and loved ones. I know he will be missed.

- Margaret Brown, Ph.D. Alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1994

I will never forget Prof. Kevorkian. So many fond memories in his partial differential equations class AMATH 569. It was the spring of 1983 I think, his final exam was a killer exam I believe the high score was 10 out 100. I remember him turning over the metal waste baskets to stand on to reach the chalkboard they were at a high height for over 6ft tall people on the top floor of Guggenheim.

Prof. Kevorkian was about the same height as me 5'3". On Friday afternoon we would have seminar and adjourn to a local bar and have happy hour drinks and we would continue discussing math. He was a fascinating man and everyone loved him. One of my favorite jobs at Boeing was backward engineering a FORTRAN program to solve the Helmholtz wave equation in an ocean environment solution method for various frequencies of sound using ray tracing other methods to compute convergence zones of sound waves. It was extremely interesting and thought of Jerry often during that project. He was always up for AMATH parties and picnics. Rest in peace Jerry.

- Lynne Merrill, MS Alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1983

One morning in the lounge, I found myself standing over the tea kettle waiting for boiling water. At my side was Professor Kevorkian, with whom I had usually exchanged a smile and a nod over the year since I arrived as a graduate student. Having just passed my qualifying exam the week before, I was feeling good. When the water boiled, the normally quiet and reserved Dr. Kevorkian looked at me and said, 'I notice you take milk with your tea. Would you like to share? One week you bring the milk and the next week I will.' It was then that I realized I had really 'passed' my qualifying exam and Jerry and I spent the next few years with wonderful conversations over the tea kettle and I never forgot my end of the deal.

- Paul Kulesa, Ph.D. Alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1995

I took PDE and perturbation analysis classes from Jerry Kevorkian. He was also on my PhD advising committee. My funniest memory of Prof. Kevorkian took place in 1982 in the PDE (Amath 569) class. A student raised his hand and stated that he had two questions.

The first question pertained to the class material being covered. This question turned out to be quite involved and Prof. Kevorkian took several minutes to answer it thoroughly, filling the blackboard with many more equations.

Prof. Kevorkian then turned to the student and asked for the second question: "Did you know that your fountain pen is leaking?", asked the student. By that point, the fountain pen had emptied its entire ink supply all over the white shirt, to which Prof. Kevorkian responded: "Why didn't you make that the first question?." Good question!

- Pascale Lelong, Ph.D. Alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1989

Prof. Kevorkian taught me the partial differential equations sequence with his great textbook that I still use these days. With his encouragement, I found some typos in this book and was awarded cash bonuses. While he looked quite serious towards students, he had a very kind heart and paid a lot of attention to graduate students' wellbeing. I wish him rest in peace in heaven.

- Zhilin Li, Ph.D. Alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1994

With Jerry’s passing, I lost not only a colleague, but a friend and part of a family. It is also an end to an era that will be difficult to recreate again.

When I first moved to Seattle, Jerry was my Chair. I had no family or friends in Seattle at the time. Boundaries between work and family, colleagues and friends blurred. Colleagues became friends. During lunchtime, we would round up whoever was ready for lunch, and we would pile into Jerry’s car or my mini van for a new restaurant that either Jerry or Fred Wan (after he returned from NSF) found, and off we went, sometimes as far as Chinatown. Even when we had only one and half hour, Jerry would say “we will make it”, if he drove. Problems and conflicts in the Department didn’t seem to arise in this atmosphere. I often joked that the size of our Department’s faculty should be limited by how many we could fit into my minivan. Carl Pearson and Jerry would have bridge nights. Seta and Jerry would often entertain Pat and I in their waterfront home. Peter Schmid and Jerry would go sailing together. Jerry and Jim Murray would go out looking for used boats to buy....…..Yes, the size of the Department was small, but it was just right, like a family. And Jerry played a big role in it. He did not show affection easily, but you knew he cared. Things were often unsaid but understood. Those were the good old days.

After retirement, Jerry took up woodworking. He equipped himself with professional tools and a respirator that looked like a WWI gas mask. He made furniture for the baby of Holly, his niece. He made one beautiful cherry-wood desk for me. On the top drawer Jerry fixed a bronze plaque that reads:

Dedicated to KK Tung

Built by Jerry Kevorkian
Longtime friend and colleague
February 2005

It brings tears to my eyes each time looking at it after Jerry’s passing. Thank you, Jerry, for the friendship and fond memories.

- KK Tung, Professor, Applied Mathematics

I have very fond memories of my classes with Professor Kevorkian - one of the first that I took as a new graduate student in AMATH. Nearly 30 years later, now a professor of applied mathematics myself, his textbook is still an important and well-loved part of my collection of hardcopy books.

At the time I knew Professor Kevorkian, he had a jolly face with a balding head and completely white hair. By the end of every lecture, his nose and forehead would be a curious shade of blue, thanks to the whiteboard markers and his habit of rubbing his head or pulling on his nose while working at the board. It was hilarious to watch - and I learned to be very careful not to touch my own face while lecturing at a whiteboard!

Professor Kevorkian was working on a new edition of his textbook at the time, and offered 25 cents for every typo found by students. One of the graduate students became quite attached to this challenge, and appeared to emerge from his office almost daily, a few more coins in her pocket. I'm sure that Professor Kevorkian was most grateful, but he was naturally frustrated that there were so many typos and complained that she was going to bankrupt him!

I am grateful to have been a student of his, if only for a brief time, and am sad to hear of his passing. I am glad to have this opportunity to share some of my memories of him.

- Rebecca Tyson, Ph.D Alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1996

Jerry was a serious scholar with a good heart towards his students. I have learned a lot about PDEs from him. May he rest in peace.

- Ming Fang, Ph.D. Alumni, Applied Mathematics,1995

I am Prof. Kevorkian’s 2nd last Ph.D. student, I did my Ph.D. work with him from 1990 to 1995. When I applied graduate school in US at the end of 1989 from China, I knew that I had a very little chance to get a full financial aid which was a must for me to get a visa. I read Prof. Kevorkian’s publications on free electron laser modeling, so I wrote a letter to him along with a copy of my 1st ever publication which is my MS thesis on free electron laser modeling. Luckily, I got the full financial aid with Prof. Kevorkian’s help. During my graduate study at UW, Prof. Kevorkian paid me either 100% or 75% for every summer quarter, when most other graduate research assistants got 50% pay or as same as for a regular quarter. In 1997, when I worked at University of Minnesota as a post-doc, I applied immigration to US (green card) through national interest exception. Prof. Kevorkian wrote a very strong recommendation letter on my behalf. In 2001, I went back to Seattle to attend a conference, Prof. Kevorkian entertained me at a cozy German restaurant, and we had a good chat at his home after dinner. In early 2000, when I applied a tenure track position at South Methodist University, Prof. Kevorkian wrote a recommendation letter and help me to get an interview.

Prof. Kevorkian helped me consistently and tirelessly at both academic and personal levels, I will remember him in my heart forever.

- Lei Wang, Ph.D. Alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1995

In the academic year of 1978-80, I took a sabbatical at the University of Washington when my wife Julia assumed the position of Curriculum Director of the Federal Way School District.  The Applied Mathematics Program had just been formed and the applied mathematics leadership baton was passed from Carl Pearson to Bill Criminale. The new Program had allocated space for its faculty and students on the fourth floor of Guggenheim Hall. For a visitor without teaching responsibilities, I was provided a small cubicle as my office in the outer room of an Aero and Astro office complex on the third floor of that building. That was fine with me since it is a long way to drive from Federal Way to Seattle and I figured no one would miss my presence if I should stay and work at home most days of the week.  However, when Bill Criminale found me in my office one day, he made it crystal clear that my presence was expected by the Department more regularly and Carl Pearson and Jerry Kevorkian would have lunch with me often.  (Bill did his running during lunch hour and did not join the lunch group.)

As a student of applied mathematics in Cambridge MA, I had seen Pearson occasionally at seminars before he left for the West Coast and known a great deal about Kevorkian from an occasional west coast visitor Julian Cole.  Through our lunch outings during that short sabbatical, I got to know both better as intellectual giants in applied mathematics.  It so happened that the application areas of our research interests did not overlap, depriving me of the possibility of collaborating with them on specific research projects.  On the other hand, it appeared that they took note of my activities in applying perturbation and asymptotic methods in elasto-statics, economics and the life sciences.  In retrospect, that might have been the seed for a phone call from Jerry a few years later after I had returned to UBC.

The call from Jerry was about UW having authorized the establishment of a new Department of Applied Mathematics and Jerry was to inform me about the search for a Chair Designate to set up the new department.  It was somewhat puzzling to me at the time why there should be the need for a search since Jerry himself had all the qualifications for the position.  The answer came a few years later when the Department needed an Acting Chair for one year in my absence and Jerry graciously agreed to serve in that capacity. All his colleagues were so impressed with Jerry’s stewardship on that occasion that he was enlisted again as the Interim Department Chair when the position became vacant two years later. Through working with him as his Divisional Dean, I learned that Jerry was a good administrator but had no interest in taking on an administrative position. At the same time, he had a strong commitment to the welfare of the Department and would always step up to the plate to serve the institution when needed.  

Jerry’s main interests were research and education of students.  While he had some of the best thesis students who came through Applied Mathematics, Jerry also had a strong interest in the welfare of all the students. It was for them that he worked to put his course notes into two graduate texts on PDE and Multiple Scale Asymptotics. When he heard about some summaries I had sketched for AMATH 507-508, he encouraged me to have them fleshed out and eventually published so that students would have the relevant material available as they prepare for the qualifying examination on variational calculus. He actually arranged to have the Wadsworth (soon to become Chapman-Hall) editor for his PDE book to meet with me, a meeting that led to the notes published as a graduate text in 1995. 

 Jerry and I both loved to eat but he had no stomach for the food available on campus. Together with Carl (and later joined by K.K.), we had lunches from Fremont to the International District and had meals from chicken fried steaks to dim sum. Seta, Jerry’s wife, had been concerned about his weight and was not particularly sanguine about our off-campus eating sprees.  When we ran into her after lunch one day, Seta asked Jerry what big meal we had had again.  “It was just a tiny little sandwich,” Jerry responded with a smile. His eating companions dutifully assured Seta that we in fact had had sandwiches for lunch (without specifying the portion of our French Dips). With a twinkle and a wink, “a tiny little sandwich” became the code word for our sumptuous lunches thereafter. 

We still had good laughs about our “tiny little sandwiches” when the Kevorkians visited Mirabella, our new residence in Downtown Seattle, as well as when we last had dinner at their place in July 2021. It was at that last dinner that Jerry and I began to plan on getting his two books republished in the SIAM series of Classics in Applied Mathematics. So when SIAM failed to reach Jerry by email, I forwarded the request for contact information to Jerry. It was a combination of shock, a sense of personal loss and utter incredulity to learn that Jerry did not survive after a day in the hospital the week before.  

As remembrances being gathered among his friends and former students, it took time for me to recover from the pain of personal loss before trying to put in words my thoughts on Jerry.  Among them, the memory of us going to his boat mooring place after lunch to tend to a few minor boat chores probably does not mean much to others; but these visits were the only way I could share and participate in Jerry’s passion for sailing (since I cannot swim and could not go sailing with him). Meanwhile, a determined effort to get Jerry’s books re-published may help to regain my mooring from the painful loss.

- Frederic Wan, Colleague and Friend

I was lucky enough to take several courses from Dr. Kevorkian, one undergrad course and PDEs and asymptotic perturbation theory in grad school. It was just a few years after he came to the UW, I got my BSAA in '69 and MSAA in '70. Dr Kevorkian was a great professor and part of a tremendous faculty, with Dr. Pearson, Dr. Holsapple, and Dr. Vagners, who was my PhD advisor as well as faculty in the EE/Computer Science department.

Don't take this story the wrong way. In his undergrad class, I think tensor calculus or something like that, everyone underperformed rather drastically in a test. Dr. Kevorkian came in, looked around, and said simply that as an undergrad, he went to a 3rd rate southern school (Georgia Tech) and we did worse than his class would have. Hmmm, the negative reinforcement did the trick, almost everyone maxed the next test. Funny how I remember that 50 years later. It's nice to reminisce about my experiences at the UW.

- Bob Eichenlaub, UW alumni, 1970

A couple of years ago I had occasion to communicate with Jerry. He told me about his ailments, and more recently I had the idea of getting a few of his former students together for a lunch with him. It was only when I looked him up that I learned that he had passed away. Hence this remembrance is late.

At UW my Ph.D. advisor was Professor Juris Vagners, whose remembrance of Jerry appears herein. My thesis topic was closely related to some research Jerry had done some years prior, which meant that I consulted him frequently during my own research in the early 70s.

One day, as I was innocently walking through the halls of Guggenheim Hall, I encountered Jerry, who was on the prowl, looking for a warm body to act as a crew member on his sailboat in an upcoming race. The other crew member was Professor Keith Holsapple.

On the day of the race, I reported to the dock as instructed by Jerry, making sure I wasn’t late. I vaguely recall him saying something along the lines of “Regardless of what happens, we’re all friends when the race is over.” I didn’t pay much attention to this comment. Jerry explained that whenever he gave the word, my job was to rapidly turn a crank to change the orientation of the sail. We went through this procedure several times without incident. We were doing quite well and were nearly in first place. Then it happened. The crank somehow got away from me and the sail went fluttering in the breeze, causing us to lose most of our momentum. Jerry went into a screaming, uncensored rage. To say that I was terrified would be a gross understatement. I wished I could just shrivel up and disappear. I glanced over at Keith, who gave me a look that was equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, “Don’t worry; this is just Jerry being Jerry.”

Evidently Jerry really meant what he said at the start of the race. Several years later, in the early summer of 1975, I returned to Seattle after almost two years as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Teaching jobs were hard to come by at that time and I was hurting for money. One day the phone rang and it was Jerry with an offer to work on a problem he was interested in. After thinking it over for three seconds, I eagerly accepted. Professor Vagners was away at the time and he generously offered to let me use his office. This increased my already-substantial debt of gratitude to Juris for all the instruction, support and good advice he gave me as a graduate student.

The grant that supported Jerry’s research didn’t allow him to pay me an extravagant salary. I believe he regretted this and he took me out to lunch on a number of occasions. We had many engrossing conversations. It turned out to be the most enjoyable summer of my professional career. Near the end of the summer, I finally cracked the problem. Giving Jerry the news was a high point of my life.

We later presented the results of our work at a conference in Philadelphia. Jerry stayed at the hotel where the conference was taking place and I stayed at the local YMCA. Didn’t bother me a bit. Jerry was asked to chair one of the sessions.

As it happened, my younger sister was residing in Philadelphia at the time. I knew that both she and Jerry were fluent in French. I thought it would be fun to introduce her to Jerry, so we made plans to meet at the hotel bar. I told her that if she wanted to score some points with Jerry, she should speak to him in French. When I arrived at the bar, I found the two of them, drinks in hand, jabbering away in French.

Jerry was truly one of a kind. I feel fortunate to have been one of his students and to have worked with him. He was a giant among the applied mathematics community.

- Larry Lewin, UW PhD Graduate

Prof. Kevorkian's first year at the UW in 1964 was also my first year as a grad student in the Dept. of Aero. and Astro. One of my first classes was his class on singular perturbation theory. He became my PhD advisor in 1965 and I received my degree in 1968. I believe I was his first student to receive a PhD.

- James E. Lancaster, Aero. & Astro PhD Alumni, 1968

Around 1986, I got my MS in Chem. Eng. at U of WA and I had only about $100 left in my pocket with no job. I had taken a number of courses in Applied Math during 1984-86 and Prof Frederic YM Wan helped me to get admission in Applied Math Dept. I met Prof Kevorkian shortly thereafter and decided to work in perturbation theory under his guidance. My greatest regret is that I never quite expressed my debt of gratitude to Prof Wan and Prof Kevorkian for saving my career and probably my life when I was in a really desperate situation. Although I have now moved on to logic/foundations of science, it was the invaluable experience of working in perturbation theory under Prof Kevorkian that helped me get (what I believe is) the correct intuition about the curse of infinities in mathematics.

- Radhakrishnan (Ram) Srinivasan, Ph.D. alumni, Applied Mathematics, 1989

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