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Stephen Ames Mitchell


1951 - 2017 Obituary Condolences
Stephen Ames Mitchell

Stephen Ames Mitchell died of cancer on August 17, 2017, his 66th birthday. Steve was a mathematician and professor, beloved by a generation of students at the University of Washington. He was a mountain lover and happiest when hiking or rock climbing, often while simultaneously thinking about math. He loved classical music, learning foreign languages, and most of all, his family.

Steve's lifelong love affair with the mountains began early, when he dropped out of Stanford as an undergraduate to hitchhike around the West, bearded and shaggy-haired, with climbing gear in tow. His propensity to "snap at the rope" of slow climbers ahead earned him the nickname "Mad Dog." His "transient phase" lasted several years; two later stints in college were likewise abandoned due to the irresistible pull of the mountains. He studied math independently, and when he applied to graduate school at the University of Washington, he was admitted to the doctoral program without an undergraduate degree.

He earned his PhD in 1981, completed post-doctoral positions at MIT and Princeton, and returned to UW to join the faculty. He mentored doctoral students who have gone on to succeed in the field, and inspired students of many backgrounds to appreciate and enjoy mathematics. In addition to skilled and devoted teaching, students will remember such classroom diversions as "Great Mathematical Moments at the Movies"; the "Topological Theme Park", (as yet unconstructed, but featuring such delights as the Torsion Tube of Terror and the Hopf Rotator), and-inevitably-ongoing chronicles of his daughters and grandchildren.

He was a prominent research mathematician, publishing widely in academic journals. He spoke at conferences around the world, with a predisposition towards those located close to spectacular mountains, like the Dolomites and Bavarian Alps. He received numerous research grants from the National Science Foundation and was honored with an American Mathematical Society Centennial Fellowship. He was a passionate advocate for women in math, both as a teacher and as a colleague.

Born in New York in 1951, Steve spent most of his childhood with his parents and three siblings in Oregon and California, with a memorable year in Belgium. Steve was drawn to Seattle for the mountains, the math...and for a certain young woman who lived in a houseboat on Lake Union. They married in 1978 and raised two daughters. Their family had many adventures: whitewater rafting, skiing, camping, and travelling to Europe for choir competitions.

Steve was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. Through three years of treatment he continued to teach, hike, and enjoy life each day. He routinely worked on math at the infusion ward at the UW Med Center, and even when he was "too exhausted to do anything" you'd find him reading 19th century literature in Italian and listening to opera. His blog to keep family and friends up-to-date was uniformly positive and upbeat. He accepted death unflinchingly and with true grace, and was profoundly grateful for a life very well lived.

He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Wendy Wagner, daughters Jessica Brown and Abigail Mitchell, sons-in-law Kevin Brown and Oliver Henderson, grandchildren Kaia and Finley Brown, mother Dorothy Mitchell, brother Kenneth Mitchell, sisters Victoria and Janet Mitchell, brother-in-law Jerry Cromwell, brothers-in-law Warren Wagner, and Wayne and Betty Wagner, and a wide circle of friends.

A topologist should always have the last word, so we'll close with this (quoted from Steve's blog, July 14, 2017): "We [humans] like to think that we are special, that we somehow deserve a better fate than a starfish, a hummingbird, or a coyote. No. We are all part of the same amazing Animal Kingdom. And why stop at the animals?

A wildflower, a saguaro cactus, a towering redwood-they live; they die. They die because they were born.

When I put my own life and death in this context, within the infinite beautiful cycle of life and death of all living creatures, in its turn embedded in the vast mysterious fabric of Space-Time, I can feel only awe, wonder, gratitude, and a profound peace.

The end is my beginning."

A memorial service will be held on October 3rd at the University of Washington.

For information,

consult https://math.

washington.edu in the near future.
Published in The Seattle Times on Aug. 27, 2017
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