September 23, 1932 - January 20, 2021
Santa Cruz, California
Harold Widom passed away peacefully at home with his family on Wednesday, January 20, 2021 due to complications of COVID-19.
Harold was born on September 23, 1932 to Morris and Rebecca Widom in Newark, New Jersey, the younger of their two sons. His father, a dentist, developed tuberculosis when Harold was a young boy of 5 and died at a sanitorium in Colorado, leaving Harold's mother to raise her two sons alone. The family moved to Brooklyn where Harold attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan along with his older brother Ben. Harold excelled in his studies, was captain of the math team, and graduated from high school at age 16.
Harold attended The City College of New York for two years and was one of the winners of the prestigious William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. He then went on to the University of Chicago where he earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at the young age of 23.
Harold joined the faculty at Cornell University in 1955. His brother Ben had also joined the Cornell faculty, in chemistry, and the two brothers lived down the street from one another as they launched their families. In 1968 Harold accepted an offer from the newly established University of California at Santa Cruz where he was a founding member of the mathematics department. Although the family had spent sabbaticals in several other locations (Princeton, Chicago, Berkeley, and Stanford), the permanent move from Ithaca to Santa Cruz was a big one for Harold, his first wife Lois Widom, and their three young children, both culturally and climatically. Harold was lured to Santa Cruz not only by the new university but by the opportunity to play tennis all year round.
Harold had a brilliant mathematical career. Among several other awards and honors, in 2006 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2020 he and his long-term research collaborator, the UC Davis mathematical physicist Craig Tracy, received the prestigious American Mathematical Society's Steele Prize for
Seminal Research. Harold was unusual among mathematicians in doing some of his best work late in his career. Using the chalkboard in his study at home, he continued working on unsolved mathematical problems until weeks before his death.
Harold fully embraced the outdoor recreational opportunities in Santa Cruz, and many days he could be found on the trails of nearby Henry Cowell, Big Basin, and Nisene Marks parks. He often said he came up with his best mathematical ideas while on the hiking trail. His love for hiking also took him to the Sierras for hikes with his children and later grandchildren. Next to the chalkboard in his study are two prominent photos of him atop Half Dome in Yosemite in 1991.
Harold had a multitude of other interests. He played the violin from childhood and enjoyed playing with the UCSC orchestra for many years. He read extensively and always had a good mystery on his bedside table. He and his second wife Linda Larkin traveled widely, with Switzerland being an early favorite and later New Zealand which they visited nine times. He had a close circle of friends with whom he enjoyed many a good meal, glass of wine or, his favorite drink, a gin gimlet.
Harold is survived by his wife Linda Larkin, his brother Benjamin Widom of Ithaca, New York, daughter Barbara Widom, an endocrinologist in Fort Collins, Colorado, daughter Jennifer Widom, Dean of Engineering at Stanford University, son Steven Widom, a software engineer, and four grandchildren, Andrew and Christopher Wilson and Emily and Tim Aiken.
As part of his legacy Harold has chosen to give generously to the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. To remember him, the family encourages you to take a stroll in the redwoods or another refuge of your choice. A memorial service is planned for within the next year as the pandemic abates. View the online memorial for Harold Widom