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             Otton Nikodym balances teaching and research.

            What exactly is the implied contract between a college teacher and his students? I've heard it put a number of ways, from "they pay my salary so I teach them" to much more philosophical presentations. But there was one version I heard about 1966 that has always stuck in my mind.
      Otton  Nikodym, in English Otto, was a distinguished Polish research mathematician during  the first half of the twentieth century.  Most mathematicians of my time  at least remember the name of the Radon-Nikodym Theorem, an important theorem of mathematical analysis.  Nikodym had a wife who was considerably younger -- I think she was his Ph.D. student at the University of Warsaw, where he was on the faculty before the Second World War.
        During the war, of course, the German Nazis were fairly efficient at exterminating the Polish intelligentsia.  Nikodym and his wife escaped into the countryside, disguised as peasants. They were sheltered for the duration of the war in a small village, hidden and fed by the peasants. In exchange for being taken care of, they tutored the village children in arithmetic, and sometimes in other subjects, generally at the primary level.
        After the war, they returned to Warsaw, and Prof. Nikodym was again on the faculty of the University. But when the communists took over, he realized that once again his survival would depend on politics and not on mathematical ability. He and his wife went to a mathematical conference in London in 1948, and looked for a way to stay in the West.  Since he was already at least 65, and his spoken English was limited, this was not trivial to arrange.
        Professor William Transue, of Kenyon College, a small undergraduate college in Ohio, was at the meeting and thought that something could be worked out.  Kenyon was in a very small village, which might simplify the cultural adjustment, and Transue felt his students would benefit by exposure to such a distinguished man, even in the presence of the language barrier. He contacted the President of Kenyon, a job offer was made, and the Nikodyms moved to Gambier, Ohio.  In the early days the Nikodyms went to class together; he lectured from a prepared text and she helped field the questions.  They were a dramatic contrast to the usual inhabitants of central Ohio, moving together through this strange culture and language.  The small college town was a big help: there was usually someone who could translate, by way of French or German, if there was difficulty communicating in the butcher shop or at the barber, and the shopkeepers knew the college would straighten out any problems By a few years later, his English had improved enough to manage questions himself and his wife no longer needed to attend his classes.
          By the time I was a student at Kenyon and took a course from Nikodym (an introduction to Hilbert Space, using the text by Halmos) in the early 1960's, he was in his eighties.  A small man, somewhat stooped over, he was driven to work every morning by his wife. She followed two paces behind as he walked to his office, removed his coat for him and hung it up, then went home until she returned for him in the evening.  A sweet, softspoken man, he still lectured from a prepared text but his English was limited and we often had to phrase our questions in French and German, a good experience for us students but it generally restricted his enrollment to senior math majors planning to attend graduate school, not a large number of people in this small college which then had about 800 students.  A high point of our undergraduate education was being invited home for dinner at the Nikodym home. It was a small but elegant apartment carved from a large house on a  hilltop owned by the college, built well over a century ago as the palace of the then Episcopal Bishop of Ohio.  Mrs. Nikodym served what seemed to us a very European dinner, and with some prompting from her husband told of their earlier lives and especially their hiding out during the Second World War.
        I don't know how Nikodym's contract with the college was organized, given that he had started teaching at the usual retirement age, and left any pension rights behind in Poland in 1948. We generally understood that he would go on teaching as long as he, and the students, enjoyed it. But the smallness of the college meant that the number of senior math majors was unpredictable, and eventually, about 1965 or 1966, the day came when only one student could be found to sign up for Professor Nikodym's course.
         Nikodym came in the first day with his prepared opening lecture, which he delivered to the single student. It began "Every student buy copybook [holding up a small notebook]. I put important theorems on blackboard, you copy theorems in copybook.  If you are absent, you borrow copybook from another student, copy theorems from his copybook in your copybook."
           The student attempted to interrupt and explain that this would not work with only one student in the class, but perhaps the student's French or German was too weak to reach understanding, or perhaps Nikodym was unable to make the adjustment.  The student came and told the mathematics faculty that he felt he had to drop the course, and  since William Transue had left to teach at SUNY Binghamton, it fell to Dr. Dan Finkbeiner to break the news to Dr, Nikodym.
         I'm not sure what exactly Nikodym said to Finkbeiner, but Nikodym marched straight in to confront  President Lund of the College, and the words he used were repeated by  President Lund and stuck firmly in my mind. Nikodym said  "My job to teach mathematics, I give lectures mathematics. Your job send students to listen to lectures.  IF YOU NOT SEND STUDENTS, THEN  I  NOT GIVE LECTURES. I get research grant National Science Foundation, only do research."
        And he did.

Edward T. Ordman  (C) 2001

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