Professor Ed Olmstead Retires

On November 30 at 3:30pm in Cohen Commons, the Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics Department will host a reception in honor of William Edward Olmstead’s retirement.

Ed Olmstead

William Edward Olmstead was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, where he was better known as a high school football star than a straight A student.  He attended Rice
University as an undergraduate, and finally came to Northwestern for graduate studies in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics. On a radio show in Texas at that time, they asked the question "will the boy from the little town of San Antonio find happiness in the big city of Evanston?" Fortunately for us the answer is a resounding yes. For more than 50 years, Ed has found happiness here, where he has contributed enormously to the growth and success of Applied Mathematics at Northwestern. 

Ed received his PhD at Northwestern working with both Sev Raynor and Ivar Stakgold. Ed attributes his success as a teacher to Sev and Ivar, both of whom were outstanding teachers.

Following the receipt of his PhD degree in 1963, Ed spent a year as a postdoc at Johns Hopkins, after which he returned to Northwestern as a McCormick faculty member in 1964. During 1967-1968, Ed was a Visiting Member of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU, where he worked with Joe Keller, the world's foremost applied mathematician. While there, he met one of Joe's recent PhDs, Bernie Matkowsky, who would come to Northwestern a decade later.Ed and Ivar have been lifelong friends. Ed's interest in competitive contract bridge was certainly due in part to Ivar's status as one of the world's top ranked bridge players. In a weak moment, Ivar once offered the possibility of their playing together as partners, while pointing out that if Ed ever made a mistake, it would become a perpetual source of kidding. Knowing Ivar's propensity as a relentless kidder, Ed declined the offer.

At Northwestern Ed devoted himself to the development of a program in Applied Mathematics. Indeed, it was he who convinced Dean Bruno Boley in 1975 to change the name of the department from Engineering Sciences to Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics. In 1977 Bernie Matkowsky was hired with a mandate to build Applied Mathematics, and together with Ed, they did. They first revised the department's course offerings and embarked on an aggressive hiring campaign, recruiting the best possible faculty and students. Among the first hires were Steve Davis and Ed Reiss, followed by many other successful hires. They invited outstanding visiting scientists and colloquium speakers, organized a number of very successful conferences, including the first conference to honor Joe Keller, organized the Chicago area applied math consortium, initiated the NU applied math report series, and raised sufficient monies to support these activities. The rest, as they say, is history. Now the department is recognized as one of the finest in the world.

Ed has published over 100 papers, and given over 150 technical presentations at conferences and universities worldwide. He has advised 16 PhD students and has served on the editorial boards of excellent applied mathematical journals. Ed has been a master teacher for which he has received several teaching awards, including one of the first two engineering faculty to be appointed to a Charles Deering McCormick Professorship of Teaching Excellence. He is well known for never using notes in the classroom. We should also mention Ed's introduction of various very well attended courses in financial mathematics, which, based on his extensive investment background, led to an important new aspect in our departmental course offerings. The courses involving stochastic differential equations, e.g., Black Scholes models, involved managing mock portfolios and using actual software employed by professional traders, proved to be very popular with the students.

Among numerous humorous incidents in Ed's life at Northwestern, the following come to mind: In 1976, when seeking a candidate to head Northwestern's effort to build an Applied Mathematics department, all interested professor s were invited to submit names, with the added comment not to be concerned about their availability. One colleague submitted the names of G.I. Taylor and John von Neumann. When Ed pointed out that these two eminent applied mathematicians were both dead, his colleague was quick to respond "you said not to worry about their availability".

Ed also described some interesting encounters with students. For example a student once complained that his low grade resulted from discrimination since he was Canadian. Upon asking a colleague if such a charge had any credibility, he was told "only when you can see the maple leaf on his forehead."

A student with a marginal background wanted to take Ed's graduate differential equations course. Though recommended not do so, the student insisted and registered. Several weeks later when the class was given a challenging take-home examination, the marginal student complained bitterly that he could not find any clues on the internet for solving the problems. The student felt his grade should reflect credit for time spent in searching the internet.

Another time, Ed, driving his beloved Jaguar, experienced a serious engine failure as he coasted into a Northwestern parking lot. The Jag was towed to the dealer, who informed Ed that a new engine was needed and it would cost an exorbitant amount. Even though Ed had an extended warranty, the insurance company refused to pay, claiming that the car had been abused. The case went to court, where Ed's attorney argued that Ed, as a respected professor in an eminent engineering school, would never abuse a car. The judge was convinced and awarded Ed 150% of the claimed amount, which just goes to show that it pays to be a McCormick professor.

We wish Ed many happy years ahead. He has contributed much to Northwestern in general, to McCormick and to ESAM in particular. He deserves our recognition and our very best wishes. He will unquestionably be missed.

To celebrate Olmstead's career and accomplishments, a retirement party will take place at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 30 in Cohen Commons. Click here to RSVP to the retirement party.