William Jeffrey Coles
Oct 31, 1929 ~ Feb 16, 2020
William Jeffrey Coles
Oct 31, 1929 ~ Feb 16, 2020
William Jeffrey Coles, born October 31, 1929, died on February 16 at age 90, in the hands of his wife, children, and granddaughters, after a long decline into vascular dementia. He was a loving husband to Joan Link Coles and a loving and sometimes patient father to Jeffrey, Katharine, and Peter, and tried to teach them above all to think. He was known for his radiant presence, his integrity, his compassion, and his deep kindness.
He was a brilliant mathematician and exercised his pedagogical impulses for forty-four years in the math department at the University of Utah. His research significantly advanced the understanding of the oscillatory properties of solutions to ordinary differential equations. His sons, especially, took after him in their mathematical, scientific, and mechanical inclinations; he admired his younger son's elegant machines and did not discourage his older son's premature experiment in beermaking, though it resulted in a product he was obliged to confiscate, of a quality below his usual standard. He collected a cellar of rare and wonderful wines, which he loved to share along with good food.
He and Joan met at the Hoofers Club at the University of Wisconsin, and they passed their outdoor enthusiasms on to their children. When she was three, he taught his daughter to ski on the University of Utah golf course, pushing her off from the top of his chosen hill then gallantly tucking her under his arm to carry her back up for the next run. He also enjoyed hiking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, and hunting - in later years with no gun but binoculars, despite or because of being the best marksman anyone knew, as well as a superb tracker. He could smell deer sheltering nearby, and he taught Joan to see birds and animals in the wild. He carried his weight on his back for miles and was a great driver on all terrains and in all conditions. His agility in problem-solving made him more than a bit of a rebel.
Bill was an ardent and gifted musician, especially fond of the banjo and mandolin, and he loved to sing and play with his wife, kids, and friends. He and Joan held season tickets and introduced their children to the opera, the ballet, and chamber music, but he was also enthusiastic about folk, country, and rock-and-roll. Many years ago, his daughter was taken aback to run into him at a Grateful Dead Concert. Together, they enjoyed dancing and singing at Red Butte Garden concerts until nearly the end of his life.
Known to his older son as the "droll under the bridge," he had a wit so dry it left half his students in stitches, while the other half had no idea he'd made a joke. He loved to read in all genres and especially enjoyed P.G. Wodehouse; after retirement, he took up writing and cajoled Joan into it, too. They were both soon published, Bill as a poignantly comic essayist.
The hardest thing, especially for his wife, was losing his brilliant mind. Despite the difficulties of the last few years, Bill retained his wit and charm to the end, expressing himself through facial expressions after language failed him. When one of "his" people arrived to see him, he would light up. He especially enjoyed going out for coffee, people-watching, and wheelchair cruises with his younger son, who was loving, tender, and steadily attentive with him through the difficult end. He was a favorite with the caregivers at Capitol Hill Care Center, whom we thank for their help. In addition to his wife and children, he is survived by loving granddaughters Alexandra Coles (Cody Stephens) and Lauren Coles, step-granddaughter Jennifer Condliffe, daughter-in-law Jeri Coles, and son-in-law Chris Johnson. We feel deeply grateful to have had him for the time we did, and we are privileged to have been able to share his long life and his last years and moments. We will notify friends about the party to celebrate his life once details are set. In lieu of flowers, please donate in Bill's name to the Nature Conservancy or the charity of your choice.
Published by The Salt Lake Tribune from Feb. 21 to Mar. 1, 2020.
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14 Entries
Maidel Margulies
December 5, 2020
Bill was a central figure in my life for all the years I spent at the University of Utah. We did mathematics together, played tennis, hiked and hunted. -Grant Gustafson
Grant Gustafson
December 1, 2020
It is hard to think of Bill being gone. Although I have been a bit out of touch in recent years, I have marvelous memories of hiking, backpacking, and ski trips shared with Bill and Joan. Sitting in a tent in the Wind Rivers in a pouring rainstorm and singing "We're coming in on a wing and a prayer" is but one of many. Rest in peace, Bill. We all miss you.

Katy Partridge White
Katy Partridge White
November 30, 2020
Please have no doubts about how much the family appreciates the memories of Bill that you have taken the thought, time, and effort to share. Your memories and comments mean the world to us. Here is another photo of Dad.
Jeffrey Coles
March 5, 2020
So sorry and so sad to read this. Our condolences to Joan, and the family. A great party guest, droll wasn't the half of it. I remember most a rafting trip with him and Joan where we shared naughty Limericks while imbibing copious amounts of grog.
Jenny and Phil Wyckoff
March 2, 2020
I am so sorry to hear of Bill's passings! Bill was a favorite of mine a long time ago. When I was a new bride in 1967 my husband Robert Barnhill had been recruited by Bill when he and Joan were at the U of Wisconsin for his sabbatical. The U of U needed a Numerical Analyst and Bill worked his magic on Bob so we moved to SLC in 1967. Bill mentored Bob in being a professor. We always enjoyed our times with the Coles both Bill and Joan were gracious hosts and taught us about fine dining and wine and the wonders of Utah. I always enjoyed their children and their home.
Susan (Barnhill) now Chandler
March 2, 2020
I knew Bill as a brilliant and generous mathematician always willing to share his expertise and as an outdoorsman where we both hiked and skied together. In his later years, I loved his wonderfully witty essays.
Rollie Lamberson
February 29, 2020
You and our journeys across the desert will be with me forever,
Your Partner "Charlie Raines"
Bill Smith
February 28, 2020
Bill was my mentor at Utah. He taught me dry humor by example, the kind of humor learned in the Midwest in cities like Madison and St Paul. -Grant Gustafson
Grant Gustafson
February 24, 2020
My condolences to you this family in this difficult time.
Mark Taylor
February 22, 2020
You have led a superb life, as an outdoors man, a friend, and as a gifted mathematician.
Klaus and Claudia
February 21, 2020
Our dear mother, Coral Clifford, was a fellow resident with Bill Cole at Capitol Hill. Our family was especially fond of Joan and her children, as they visited every day. As his obituary notes, his face would light up with pleasure every time they came to be with Bill. What a delightful and caring family you have! We think fondly now of those difficult times, but are grateful for the caring experience and wonderful people we encountered. And though my mother and siblings are devoutly LDS, they would appreciate with you, my raising a glass of fine Champagne to toast Bill on his eternal journey, as well saluting the love and dedication of his family. We thank you for the pleasure of knowing you. Fondly, Brett Clifford, Bob Clifford, Neil Clifford, Diane Erhard
Brett Clifford
February 21, 2020
I was honored to be a faculty colleague of Bill at the U. Although we were in different departments, I knew him to be a brilliant mathematician, a gifted teacher, and--in his later years--a talented essayist. He was also a kind and caring man with a delightful sense of humor. David and I are holding Joan and her family in our thoughts.
Jerilyn McIntyre
February 21, 2020
Bill was a man's man, totally admirable.
Rich Hallstrom
February 21, 2020
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