A Prized Professor
College dropout, screenwriter, and novelist Benedict Freedman (1919-2012) went back to school in his late 40s en route to Oxy
Benedict Freedman did not have a curriculum vitae typical of a mathematics professor emeritus. He wrote 10 novels with wife Nancy—the best known of which, Mrs. Mike (1947), was adapted into a 1949 film starring Dick Powell and Evelyn Keyes. He was a staff writer on radio for Al Jolson and Red Skelton. He became an Emmy-winning TV writer for Skelton, and penned some 500 scripts for series ranging from “The Andy Griffith Show” to “My Favorite Martian.”
Then again, Freedman—who died February 24 at age 92 in Corte Madera—lived anything but a typical life. “Much as I would like to attribute my success to innate qualities of mind and character, I must admit that the principal part was played by luck,” he wrote in a self-evaluation for a Faculty Council review in 1982. Born on Dec. 19, 1919 (a “potent” number in the Kabbalah), he noted, “I was born lucky, I have lived lucky, and I expect that when I die it will be by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune.”
A New York native who entered Columbia University at age 13, Freedman dropped out of college at age 16 to help support his family after the death of his father, David (who wrote for radio and Broadway). “At first I was going to be a doctor (after reading de Kruif), but fainted dissecting my first frog,” he wrote. “I found it a lot easier to write about blood than look at it.”
It was only in his late 40s that Freedman returned to college, earning a B.A. and a doctorate in symbolic logic from UCLA. He was hired by Oxy as a lecturer in mathematics in 1968, and taught at the College until his retirement as a full professor in 1995. Freedman served as director of Oxy’s then-new General Studies program (which replaced History of Civilization) for three years before becoming chair of the mathematics department. He also served as director of writing programs.
“My greatest piece of luck was coming to Occidental College,” he wrote. “When I was 8, I complained to my father that my schoolmates beat me up regularly because I was named after Benedict Arnold. ‘Not so,’ my father said, and pulled a red leather volume from the bookcase. It was another Benedict—one Spinoza—and he put The Ethics in my hands. I at once resolved to become a philosopher and write my own ethica de more geometrico demonstrata.” Fifty-four years later, Freedman published just such a work, The Value Makers.
“The College not only paid for me for the fun of teaching mathematics, but let me stick my oar in any general education project around,” he continued. “As a result I made friends with fascinating and knowledgeable people in all fields and got a true liberal arts education in middle age.”
“Professor Freedman taught the first math class I didn’t fear, and actually enjoyed, Math as a Liberal Art,” Kristy Wheeler ’94 wrote on Oxy’s Facebook page. “A true miracle, a true genius.” Maria Castro ’81 agreed, praising “Dr. Freedman’s kind way of helping some of us cope with our math anxieties.”
Freedman is survived by his children, Johanna Shapiro, Michael Freedman, and Deborah Jackson; sister Laurie Hayden; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Since 2001, thanks to a gift of the Freedman family, Oxy has awarded the Benedict Freedman Prize for Mathematical Promise and the Benedict Freedman Senior Prize each year. Freedman himself funded the Nancy Freedman Prize for Creative Writing at Oxy following his wife’s death in 2010.
Last year, Freedman published his major lifework, Rescuing the Future, a tome of political philosophy that sees human beings as “value makers” and values as living things, and explores the practical implications of these conceptualizations for addressing the conflict between global and interpersonal values. “My principle has always been to have a dozen projects going, so that if the current one gets dull, there are more novel ones waiting their turn,” he wrote in 1982. “What does it all add up to? As a mathematician, I am embarrassed to admit that I have never made the sum total come out the same twice. But I figure that anyone who was born on Dec. 19, 1919, must have a significant life.”
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