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In memoriam: Samuel Gulden, computer science professor

Samuel Gulden, professor of computer science and engineering and one of the founders of Lehigh’s computer science program, died Aug. 26 after 52 years of active service on the faculty.

His colleagues, some of whom took Gulden’s courses when they were students, praised Gulden as a devoted teacher, patient and yet demanding with students, who possessed a rare gift for clarity.

“Sam Gulden was fully committed as a teacher and scholar,” said Edwin Kay, professor of computer science and engineering, who, together with Donald Hillman, helped Gulden establish Lehigh’s first computer science program in the early 1980s.

“He was esteemed for giving well-organized, well-crafted lectures that were just crystal clear. He had a very, very comprehensive command of mathematics and computer science.”

“Sam Gulden was a great guy, a brilliant man dedicated to doing the right thing for students,” said Roger Nagel, the Harvey E. Wagner Professor of manufacturing systems and of computer science and engineering. “Students described him as tough but good and said he made them learn things.”

At the time of his death, Gulden was teaching three courses in the computer science and engineering department.

“Sam was a tireless worker who taught overloads of courses his whole academic life,” said Bennett Eisenberg. “He loved teaching. He said he never wanted to retire but to teach until the end.

“And that’s what he did.”

A wholehearted devotion to computers

Gulden, a self-taught Judaic scholar who often wore a yarmulke, “was a deeply and quietly religious orthodox Jew who observed all the Jewish holidays” but did not press his faith on anyone else, said Nagel.

But rather than sign his mathematical proofs “Q.E.D.” (quod erat demonstratum), Gulden drew a Star of David when he successfully solved a problem, said Jerry P. King, professor of mathematics, who keeps in his office a notebook full of notes that Gulden wrote for one of his graduate classes in 1964.

“When Sam taught an advanced course,” said King, “he rarely followed a textbook. Instead, he wrote notes as he went along, in great detail and in beautiful script. He would give each student a mimeographed copy of those notes at the end of the semester so that everyone in a sense had their own textbook.

“Sam was a remarkable teacher, absolutely remarkable.”

Gulden’s specialty was topology, a branch of mathematics that deals with structures undergoing continuous transformation. He taught undergraduate and graduate courses in both mathematics and computer science, and he supervised nearly 20 Ph.D. students and many more master’s-degree candidates during his career.

Gulden first became interested in computers at Princeton University, where he completed his M.A. in mathematics in 1950, said Eisenberg.

His fascination with computers grew at Lehigh, and in 1979 he was appointed head of the new division of computing and information science in the mathematics department.

“Sam devoted himself to computers wholeheartedly to the point that he would be here well into the evening working with computers, then go home for a few hours, then come back and continue working on computers,” said Eisenberg.

“A lot of mathematicians have gone into computing,” said King, “but few have stayed. Sam did. I think he could see something of aesthetic value in computing, something the rest of us couldn’t see.”

A guardian of computer science education

Gulden, Hillman and Kay helped build Lehigh’s computer science program, which initially contained mathematicians, computer scientists, philosophers and psychologists. The program later moved to the engineering college where it was combined with electrical engineering before becoming a department of its own three years ago.

After making the switch to computer science and engineering, Gulden earned a reputation for speaking out on behalf of students’ interests and speaking up at department seminars.

“Sam was the guardian of the education of our students,” said Nagel. “He wanted to make sure that they were being taught what they needed in order to become world-class computer scientists.

“And if there was a course that no one else wanted to teach, Sam would teach it.”

Gulden attended department seminars up until the end, both in computer science and in mathematics, and became known as something of a stickler.

“Nothing escaped Sam,” said Nagel. “He always asked insightful questions, tough questions. He did it politely and respectfully, but firmly.”

“He was so smart,” said Eisenberg, “that he could understand all the concepts even though he was no longer keeping up with the field. It was as if he had never left.”

Other professors have maintained longer affiliations with Lehigh, Gulden’s colleagues noted, but few, if any, have taught actively, semester after semester, for more than 50 years.

In addition to the M.A. from Princeton, Gulden also earned a B.S. from the City College of New York, where he also served as an instructor in philosophy.

In 2003, he received a special citation from the provost’s office commending him on the 50th anniversary of his appointment at Lehigh.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Tuesday, August 31, 2004

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