REMEMBERING MARY VIRGINIA SUNSERI, MA '40, 1916-2003
She Was Integral to Math Teaching
Photo: Glenn Matsumura
Everyone knew when Professor Mary Sunseri held office hours. “I remember her sitting in her office surrounded by students sitting on the floor and down the hall,” says mathematics professor emeritus Robert Osserman. “Invariably there were these hordes of students at her office hours when others would have few come to see them.” Each one waited to ask questions about everything from introductory calculus to life in general.
The first woman to join the Stanford mathematics faculty, and one of the University’s legendary teachers, Sunseri died October 16 at her lifelong home in San Jose, of cancer. She was 87.
Drawn to mathematics from an early age, Sunseri earned her bachelor’s degree in 1938 from San Jose State. Little did she know when she set foot on Stanford’s campus for graduate school that she would make her career there. She accepted her first instructor position in 1943, teaching undergraduate calculus and mathematical analysis. Sunseri was named assistant professor in 1955, associate professor in 1969 and professor in 1979. She retired in 1986.
Sunseri focused on undergraduate mathematics instruction, particularly for freshmen. “The other professors wanted to teach advanced courses,” says professor emeritus Joseph Keller. “But Mary was so happy to teach the undergrads. She loved it and they loved her.” Sunseri received the Walter J. Gores Award for excellence in teaching in 1972 and the Dean’s Award for distinguished teaching in 1979. In 1984, the senior class selected her to speak at Class Day.
She made it a priority to get to know students on a personal level and remained friends with many of them. “Even though I didn’t choose math as a career, I certainly applied her approach to learning,” says Ruth Kamena, ’51. “She taught me that if a door opens, go through and don’t worry about it.”
Hoping to encourage women to pursue graduate study in mathematics, Sunseri endowed the Mary V. Sunseri Graduate Fellowship in 1998. (She also established the Leo F. Sunseri Men’s Basketball Scholarship in honor of her brother, and John, ’55, MBA ’61, and Barbara Bentley Packard, ’54, MS ’55, MS ’77, endowed a professorship in her honor.) But working alongside almost exclusively male colleagues never seemed to bother Sunseri. “I never got a sense that being the only woman made any difference to her,” Kamena says. “As far as I could tell, she had them all whipped into shape.”
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