Lyle Fisher

Lyle Fisher, 1926–2010

Co-founder, CMC Student Activity Trust,
Teacher, and Leader in Mathematics Education

Lyle Fisher, a good friend of mathematics education and the California Mathematics Council, passed away on November 13, 2010. He was a teacher who inspired many teachers, and a leader who mentored many leaders. In 1984, Lyle was honored by President Reagan with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching, and in 1987 was one of the first teachers to receive CMC’s George Polya Award for Outstanding Mathematics Teaching. His legacy in the California Mathematics Council is the Student Activity Trust, which he co-founded with Bill Medigovich. Many of us involved in CMC over the years had the privilege of knowing and working with Lyle. Perhaps his life is best summed up by the vivid memories of his friends and colleagues.

First and foremost, Lyle Fisher was a math teacher. He loved working with students who struggled in math as well as those at the very top. He believed that, with good curriculum and student-centered teaching, ALL students could learn and appreciate mathematics. Lyle came to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1960 to begin a 26-year teaching career at Redwood High School in Marin County. A former President of CMC’s Northern Section, Gretchen Muller, was one of Lyle’s students. She remembers:

“Lyle Fisher was my 9th grade Algebra teacher. It was the first time I remember laughing in math class. He challenged us while making learning fun. I remember that he always wore black sweaters on test days and occasionally would wear them on other days—just to play tricks with us. One time I asked him, “If I count 1.10, 1.11, 1.12… to 1.∞, how would I get to 2?” He never did have an answer for me. He will be missed, but his legacy lives on through the many students that he taught while making math enjoyable.”

Lyle was always more than just a teacher of high school students; he also taught, coached, and inspired many younger teachers. Roberta Koss, a former President of CMC North, began as a teaching intern working with Lyle. She recounts:

“I met Lyle when I came to Redwood High in 1961. The school had a strong academic department but Lyle helped build a strong social ethic among the nine department members (8 guys and me). Most teachers teach in isolation—that was not the atmosphere in the Redwood Math department. During my first year at Redwood, the department was involved in evening seminars with Jens Lund, another former president of CMC, learning about New Math. Every year, the staff made it a tradition to reserve the district car so a group could drive to the CMC Asilomar Conference. Lyle also started the Math Club in 1962 and invited colleagues such as Dale Seymour and Dave Logothetti to give afternoon seminars for the students. We even hosted math-oriented potluck dinners!”

“Finally, I have to blame Lyle and Bill for much of what happened to me after the 70s. They thought that I should get more involved in the math community. Naively, I said OK and was appointed Packets Chair for Asilomar and the rest as they say is history. Lyle was a special person – I’ll miss his gentle kidding, his loyalty, and his warm heart.”

Lyle was always happiest when he was either teaching or doing problem solving, and he always loved sharing good math problems with others. Besides teaching mathematics Lyle coached football, but when allergies sidelined him, he became a coach of student mathematics competitions all over the Bay Area. His collaborator in those endeavors was fellow Redwood High math teacher, Bill Medigovich. In those early competitions the seeds of CMC’s Student Activity Trust were sewn. Co-founder of the Trust, Bill Medigovich, recalls:

“In 1966, Lyle organized the Marin County Mathematics Council that sponsored the Marin County High School Mathletes. He turned his attention to involvement in NCTM and CMC in the seventies, but from 1975 through 1985 Lyle assumed the co-sponsorship of the St. Mary’s Problem Solving and Mathematics Competition. He renamed the contest the Brother Alfred Brousseau Problem Solving and Mathematics Competition in honor of the noted Christian Brother at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, also a former president of CMC. As many as 190 schools took part in that competition annually.”

image03“Throughout the years of competitions, we were frustrated that the sports teams had nice uniforms, paid-for buses, and won huge trophies, while the young men and women who won mathematics competitions seldom got more than a paper certificate, and usually had to pay their way. In 1981, when Lyle was CMC President, he and I took the lead in founding the CMC Student Activities Trust, which was designed from the beginning to offer CMC financial support for extracurricular mathematical activities for students all over California. Lyle and I had co-authored the book Problem of the Week, a source of good problems and a strategy for introducing students to problem solving. We agreed that all the royalties from the book would be donated to the CMC Student Activities Trust. The book’s royalties not only gave the Trust a good start, but to date has contributed over $50,000 for use in student activities statewide.”

Lyle was lured away from classroom teaching in 1986 to work with the Bay Area Mathematics Project (BAMP) at UC Berkeley, one of the first California Mathematics Projects. Lyle helped shape the direction of the new project. Elizabeth Stage, the first BAMP Director and current Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, fondly remembers:

“When the Bay Area Mathematics Project started, we created an advisory board that included mathematicians, mathematics educators, and classroom teachers; Lyle Fisher honored me by serving on this board. One problem we had to solve was serving the nine Bay Area counties with funding for only twenty-five teachers.  Lyle realized that Marin County would only get a few of those slots, so he suggested that we allow school districts to send two teachers if they were willing to pay for the cost of one, allowing us to go up to fifty teachers and have four grade span groups of twelve or thirteen teachers. I made the best deal ever by saying, “Yes, we can do that, as long as you are willing to be one of the instructors so we make sure districts are satisfied with their investment.” Lyle agreed and a long and valued relationship ensued. I learned so much from his wise and humble counsel, and still think of what he taught me nearly thirty years later.”

Lyle never lost his love of teaching students. When he retired as Director of the Bay Area Mathematics Project in 1990, one of the first things he did was volunteer at his local elementary school to help students with mathematics. One of Lyle’s favorite quotes had been, “Life is too short for long division!” When he asked the elementary teacher how he could help his students, the response was, “They are having a lot of trouble with long division; can you help?” To which Lyle responded, “I’ll do my best!” He also used to say, “Problem solving is knowing what to do when you don’t immediately know what to do!”

Thanks to Lyle Fisher’s legacy, the California Mathematics Council’s Student Activity Trust, teachers and students of California, and problem solvers everywhere, will continue to benefit from Lyle Fisher’s wisdom.