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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Former Math Professor, Bill Staton

*The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is former Math Professor, Bill Staton. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Bill Staton

Bill Staton is a Texas-transplant, but make no mistake about it, he is a Mississippian, having put down roots when he came here in 1978 to begin his Ole Miss story as a math professor. He met and married Carolyn Ellis and together they raised three sons. He is justifiably a proud father—and refers to himself as “something like a soccer mom” as he taxied them around to different activities growing up.

Brown: Where did you grow up? What is special about the place you grew up?

Staton: I lived my first 30 years in Texas. I was born in Austin in 1948, but there are only tiny fragments of Austin in my memory. When I was a year and a half old, we moved to Waco. My three siblings were born in Waco. I lived there until I went to college. Waco then was a town of about 90,000 dominated by Baylor University and King Cotton. I remember that in driving away from Waco in any direction, one saw cotton farms and little else.

Brown: Where did you go to school?

Staton: My formal education consisted of four six-year segments. I was a slow learner, so it took a long time. In grades 1 through 6, I was in a public elementary school in Waco. From grades 7 through 12, I attended the local Catholic high school. Then I spent six years at the University of Texas at Arlington and six years at the University of Houston. In those days, tuition at public universities in Texas was $50 per semester. I supported myself during the last eight years of my studies as a teaching assistant, making $300 or $400 per month. So I finished in 1978 with no debt.

Brown: Who influenced you in your early life? Did you have a mentor who influenced your career choice?

Staton: I had some significant mentors, most importantly my mother who found herself, at age 30, a single parent with four children, no job and no money. She started as a substitute teacher and worked her way up, retiring 30 years later as Superintendent of the public elementary schools of Waco. And she kept our family together, teaching us with words and example about what is important. Another important mentor was Sister Margaret Ruth Mahoney, my high school mathematics and physics teacher. She taught me the most important thing about mathematics, that it is beautiful, the music of the mind. She saw something good about me and she volunteered to write on my behalf in scholarship applications.

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began? Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss? What did you know about Ole Miss before you came here?

Staton: I knew very little about Ole Miss when I applied for a position here. I knew about 1962. I knew about football being more important than it should be. Before I came in March 1978 to be interviewed for the job I held for 35 years, I learned something that turned out to be very important—that Glenn Hopkins, whom I had known as a student at UT Arlington, had joined the Ole Miss Mathematics faculty in 1977. Glenn and I subsequently collaborated in numerous research projects and become life-long friends. Our friendship even survived his “going over to the dark side,” i.e., becoming an administrator.

During my job interview, I gave a presentation to the Mathematics Department and was interviewed at several levels of the administration. My interview with the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Gerald Walton was particularly memorable. He asked about the usual things—teaching and research. In addition, he asked me about my reading habits and we had a very pleasant conversation about literature, music, and current events. Dr. Walton clearly cared about the whole person, not just the academician.

Brown: What were your career goals when you began your career at Ole Miss?

Staton: My only career goals were the measurable ones, to be tenured and promoted to Professor, and the interior ones, to enjoy thinking about mathematics and try to contribute something to the University as a teacher and a mathematician. I enjoyed almost every aspect of my career for all 35 years of service. I loved thinking about mathematics and I loved being in the classroom. I did not love having to assign grades, and I disliked faculty meetings, but those were small burdens.

Brown: Almost everyone has “that” day at work that is most memorable. What day was that for you and why?

Staton: There were many memorable moments. One I particularly remember was the day in October 2012 when I received a phone call inviting me to be a plenary speaker at a conference of combinatorial mathematicians. This was memorable because in the big picture of things I’m a rather ordinary mathematician, maybe 60th percentile, and it had never occurred to me that I might be a plenary speaker. But it was a regional conference, the Texas Combinatorics Conference, so I accepted and in the spring of 2013, I gave my talk. That was another memorable day.

I supervised 13 Ph. D. dissertations. Every one of the 13 oral defenses was a memorable day for me.

Carolyn and Bill Staton

Brown:  Your wife Carolyn was a trailblazer in many ways.  How did you all achieve a work/life balance with both of you having demanding jobs?  

Staton:  Carolyn and I met in the fall of 1978 at the first meeting of a reading group.  I dropped out of the group immediately because I disliked the sorts of books that had been chosen.  Our next encounter was in fall 1983, and, remarkably, we remembered each others’ names! We married in May 1984.  Our sons arrived in 1985 (Will), 1988 (Thom), and 1990 (Michael).

Before Will was born Carolyn and I made two agreements.  First, sons would have my surname, Staton, and daughters would have her surname, Ellis.  But God and Catholic Charities only wanted us to have boys, so Carolyn Ellis eventually decided to be Carolyn Ellis Staton.  

Our second agreement was that we would share equally in the demands of childcare.  We had similar career duties, law professor and mathematics professor, so it seemed a reasonable agreement.  But in the early 1990’s, Carolyn spent a year as interim dean of the Law School and I began doing a bit more of the childcare.  Eventually, she became Provost and I became something like a soccer mom. This changed only when our sons began leaving home for boarding school and then college.  Carolyn remained an active, involved mother, but most of the taxi duties fell to me.

Brown:  Tell me 3 interesting facts about yourself.  

Staton:  

  • Five-time winner of Oxford’s July 4th race
  • Recipient of campus awards:  The Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the    Year (1988); Faculty Achievement Award (1997); Frist Service Award (1999)
  • Twice I was all-school intramural men’s tennis champion at the University of Houston

Brown:  What’s the most memorable gift you ever received?

Staton:  My mother noticed in my conversations that I had enjoyed the History of Civilization course every freshman student is required to take.  The following summer she gave me the Story of Civilization set by Will and Ariel Durant.  I believe it was that gift that turned me into a constant reader.  

Brown:  What rule should everyone follow?

Staton:   Make your life be about more than physical comfort and accumulation of wealth. 

Brown:  Your children grew up on the Ole Miss campus and I know you are proud of them.  Tell us what they are doing these days.

Staton:  Michael lives between Concord and Manchester in New Hampshire.  He studied early childhood education at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire, and has worked for the Boys and Girls Club since then.  He is now director of a large branch, the Suncook Boys and Girls Club in Allenstown, New Hampshire. Watching Michael interact with children motivated me to volunteer at the Oxford Boys and Girls Club.  

Thom is an artist and musician living in Asheville, North Carolina.  He graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a percussionist with several bands and also does solo performances.  His groups have produced albums on CD and on vinyl. One of his groups, Nest Egg, has a three-week December 2018 tour in Europe

Will is now living in the D. C. suburbs in Maryland with his lovely wife Katrina.  He studied classics and religion at Washington University in St. Louis and is now in a Master of Arts program in foreign affairs at the University of Syracuse in D.C.   He also works as an education consultant. He spent several years working in education in Harlem after a two-year stint in Teach for America. Will has also written a novel, Through Fire and Flame:  Into the New Inferno.

Thom Staton, Michael Staton, Carolyn Staton, and Will Staton on the occasion of
Michael’s graduation in New London, New Hampshire in May 2013.
Photo courtesy of Bill Staton

Brown:  They say that everyone has a book in them. What would your book be about and what would the title be?

Staton:  I don’t think my novels will ever be written.  I have two ideas for novels. One would be entitled Transfinite and would involve a mathematician who thought he could use mathematics to search for God.  This kind of search, in my opinion, is a very bad idea. There was a real-life mathematician named Georg Cantor in the late nineteenth century who seems to have been on the verge of doing this.  At least, he was accused by some other prominent mathematicians of doing so. Cantor’s mathematical ideas proved to be extraordinarily important but there is no evidence he found God.

My other novel involves the meeting in the afterlife of a prominent figure from Greek mythology and a prominent figure from the Book of Genesis.  This book would be titled Iphigenia in Hell.  I don’t want to reveal any details, because there is a slight chance I may actually try to write this one.

Brown:  What has been your routine since your retirement?

Staton:  After I retired, I spent a year supervising an honors thesis and a master’s thesis, and Carolyn and I traveled a bit.  About a year after I retired, Carolyn’s cancer was diagnosed. She got excellent medical care and we were able to continue travelling—three weeks in Germany, three weeks in Italy, two weeks in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, two cruises, including one transatlantic.  After she passed away in May 2017, I spent several months being pathetic but I’m rehabilitating myself. I’ve started yoga classes and guitar lessons, and find both very satisfying. I’m doing some tutoring of GED students and I’m a homework helper at the Oxford Boys and Girls Club.  

Brown: What are you looking forward to in the coming months?

Staton:  SPRING!

Brown:  To quote Katherine Meadowcroft, Cultural activist and writer, “What one leaves behind is the quality of one’s life, the summation of the choices and actions one makes in this life, our spiritual and moral values.”  What is your legacy?

Staton:  Lincoln and Churchill have legacies.  Do I? In the strict sense, I suppose everyone does.  Something bequeathed to the future. Our fine sons constitute a legacy for Carolyn and me.  I believe that many of my students benefited from having me as a teacher. Maybe that is a legacy.


Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

For questions or comments, email hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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