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Leon Henkin, 85; professor steered minorities and women to math

November 16, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Leon A. Henkin, a UC Berkeley mathematics professor who helped pioneer programs aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities who study and teach math at the highest levels, has died. He was 85.

Henkin, who taught at Berkeley almost 40 years, died Nov. 1 at his Oakland home of complications related to old age, said his son Julian.

"He profoundly cared about social justice, and he had the deepest belief in the potential of students of all backgrounds," said Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor at the University of Texas at Austin who was Henkin's last doctoral student.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Henkin organized a committee of distinguished Berkeley faculty members to address why more women and minority undergraduates weren't pursuing math or math-related careers, the university said in a release.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Henkin obituary: The obituary of UC Berkeley mathematics professor Leon A. Henkin in Thursday's California section said he earned bachelor's degrees in mathematics and philosophy in 1941 from what is now Columbia University. He earned those degrees from Columbia College, an undergraduate school within Columbia University.

The group set up a program that targeted underrepresented students by teaching them how to succeed in college and supporting them with scholarships. The effort served as a model for Upward Bound, a federal college-readiness program for low-income students that is used on hundreds of campuses, Treisman said.

In recognizing Henkin in 1990, the Mathematical Assn. of America said that "few individuals of our era have had a greater impact on the health of American mathematics."

Among Henkin's other accomplishments was the Bay Area Mathematics Project, a collaborative effort to improve the teaching of math in area schools that led to a similar national program. Another contribution was a 1989 study on math literacy that advocated sweeping changes in math education, including less rote memorization and livelier exploration of concepts.

In 1989, Henkin and Treisman created a summer workshop that lasted a decade and brought talented undergraduate math majors to campus. The program "produced dozens of African American and Latino PhDs, a healthy proportion who are teaching today," Treisman told The Times.

The son of Russian immigrants, Leon Albert Henkin was born April 19, 1921, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His bookkeeper father had a keen interest in science, so Henkin's middle name was in honor of Albert Einstein, whom he later met at Princeton University.

Henkin earned bachelor's degrees in mathematics and philosophy in 1941 from what is now Columbia University and followed them with a master's in mathematics a year later from Princeton.

During World War II, he worked in private industry on the Manhattan Project, the UC Berkeley release said.

At Princeton, where he completed his doctorate in 1947, he was one of a group of high-level mathematicians who are mentioned in the 1998 book "A Beautiful Mind," about the brilliant but mentally ill mathematician John Nash.

Henkin spent four years in USC's math department before joining UC Berkeley in 1953. By then, he had already established himself as a leading mind in the field of logic, said John W. Addison, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of mathematics.

Henkin was an energetic professor with a "magnetic twinkle in his eye" who thought teaching was as hard as math, Treisman said.

"When I told him I wanted to learn how to teach, he sent me to a fourth-grade classroom," Treisman recalled. "He said, 'I advise you to keep your mouth shut and watch a real teacher for a semester.' "

In addition to Julian, of New York City, Henkin is survived by Ginette, his wife of 56 years; another son, Paul of San Diego; and a sister, Estelle Kuhn of New York City.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Bancroft Hotel, 2680 Bancroft Way, Berkeley.

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