The Kemeny Effect

Gifts to the Dartmouth College Fund help make great things happen for our students. Here is one of their stories.
Walter Burgin in library

Walter Burgin ’57, a Pennsylvania native, has spent more than 40 years in education, as a mathematics teacher and school administrator. He traces the roots of his career to his mentor at Dartmouth, John Kemeny.

When I was first accepted to Dartmouth in 1953, I had definite plans to go on to law school and be a lawyer, and had little interest in studying mathematics. But then a personal letter from John Kemeny arrived. He had just been hired as chair of mathematics and was building up the department. He wrote that he had been reviewing records of entering freshmen, and encouraged me to take a mathematics course. I was shocked. No one else had shown that kind of interest in me. How could I not do what he suggested? I signed up for a math course and he was right. I fell in love with the subject and never turned back.

I was Kemeny’s first mathematics major. As I got to know him, I soon realized how fortunate I was. He could see through the complexity of things to what they were at heart, and communicate it so you could see it, too. His teaching always stays with me.

My senior year I did an independent study on artificial intelligence and he was my adviser. The previous summer I had worked on an artificial intelligence project at IBM, and when I got back to Hanover, John said he had just gotten a connection to a computer at MIT and wondered how to talk to it. It was the same model I had worked with, and I described the assembly language being used at IBM and gave him a manual. His reaction just a few days later was: “Walter, that is no way to do it.” Not immediately, but not long after I had graduated, he did something with that perception. He produced BASIC, and talking to computers began to change forever.

Kemeny gave me a chance to see what math was all about and I found it intriguing. He taught me that, at its core, mathematics is very obvious and easy. Helping other people understand that has been my motivation as a mathematics teacher for the past 40-plus years. I love helping students find their way through tough problems and through the process, see them begin to understand that math is very logical, reasonable, and doable. Kemeny taught me that kind of insight.

John and I stayed in touch after Dartmouth. I used to see him every summer and he was eager to talk about my teaching and would give me advice. Looking back, I owe so much to him and Dartmouth. If it hadn’t been for that letter and his continued interest in my career, I definitely would not have pursued a teaching career all these years. My life would have been much less than it has been.