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Wendell Helms Fleming
Wendell Fleming passed away on February 18th at home in Bristol, RI in the loving presence of
family and cherished friends. He was born March 7, 1928 in Guthrie, Oklahoma, always at heart
a Midwest boy, an only child of farmer-teacher parents with deep roots in rural Indiana. Wendell
spent most of his childhood in southern Indiana, surely with little notion of his potential, though
he told of a high school teacher who gave him advanced mathematical problems to solve, with a
glimpse of his ability. As a freshman at Purdue University, two events transformed his life with
love and purpose. He escorted Flo Tatum to a mixer at his cooperative house, where they talked
for hours and began a partnership that lasted 69 years, with a rich and meaningful domestic life.
They married on April 4th, 1948, he with permission from his parents when he was 20 years old.
Wendell also switched majors from engineering, the automatic route for someone good at math,
to study of the math itself. His inquisitiveness, natural talent, and keen analytical mind opened
doors that led to a career beyond anything he had imagined or aspired to.
Mathematics took them first to the University of Wisconsin for a Ph.D., then to the Rand
Corporation in Santa Monica, California, before returning to the faculty at Purdue. The
opportunity of a lifetime dropped in his lap when he was invited in 1958 by Herbert Federer to
join the faculty at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The two were pioneers in
geometric measure theory, and in 1987 they were awarded the Steele Prize for the lasting impact
of a joint paper published in 1960. Wendell then spent the main part of his academic life as a
professor in the Department of Mathematics and the Division of Applied Mathematics, until his
retirement in 1995. They settled in the East Bay, a community he called home for 63 years.
Together with Flo, sons Randy, Dan, and Bill were the light of Wendell’s life and, just as he
provided them nurturing and guidance, they provided him with constant love, caring, and
stimulation. His sons’ marriages to Fumiyo, Nancy, and Ellen widened his circle of love to
include the “daughters” he never had. He took joy and comfort at watching his six grandchildren
grow and launch lives of their own.
Wendell enjoyed venturing from the comforts of home to destinations far and wide, including
Europe, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Japan. He was fluent in the
universal language of mathematics, but was sufficiently comfortable with Italian, French, and
Spanish to present in his colleagues’ native languages when overseas, albeit with a southern
Indiana accent. Having spent his early years in the understated landscape of the American
Midwest, Wendell delighted in dramatic mountains and sought them out with family, friends, and
colleagues. Although he travelled far and wide, he retained the seasonal patterns of Midwest
farming, and he and Flo delighted in planting, tending, and harvesting flowers, shrubs, and
vegetables well into their 80s and 90s.
Although he loved companionship, travel for mathematics, and mountain adventures, his favorite
spot for quiet solitude was Skyward, in the glowing and sometimes misty fields, heather, and
spruce, above the lull of crashing waves on the rocky coast of Down East Maine. Here, he
settled into Flo’s company, picking cranberries and blueberries and rambling with a dog or
grandchild. Generously, they invited family into this Eden, with annual visits that marked some
of their most important events, such as his granddaughter’s first steps and recent marriage, and
releasing his beloved Flo’s ashes to the waves.
As a mathematician, he took part in groundbreaking innovations across more than one domain.
His induction into the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, which only a specialist will
understand, cites four different research directions. Later in his career, Wendell received a series
of prizes that recognized the importance of key parts of his life’s work in different disciplines:
the Steele Prize (1987) from the American Mathematical Society; the Reid Prize (1994) from the
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics; and the Isaacs Award (2006) from the
International Society for Dynamic Games. His doctoral students were a legacy as substantial as
his own research. For all the diversity of topics, backgrounds, and styles, he worked intensely
with them, often invited them home, and maintained his support for them through their careers.
Wendell respected his students and cared for them, a care and respect that they have returned
even long after his retirement.
Wendell’s love and wit were measured and dry but profoundly felt by those who knew him. In
his later years, he refocused on family. As Flo struggled with obstacles to her health in the years
before her passing in 2014, Wendell cleared away all distractions and devoted himself to her
care, even as cook, when she could no longer stand long enough in the kitchen. The loss of her
was certainly the greatest blow he ever suffered, after 66 years of marriage and 69 as a couple,
since he was just 17. Without Flo, he deepened his bonds with his sons, daughters in law, and
grandchildren and, when he lost his independence, welcomed with warmth the nurturing,
affection, and loyalty of remarkable caregivers. After a lifetime of generosity and commitment,
and in the presence of family, friends, and caregivers, Wendell ultimately joined his dearest love,
Flo, in eternity.
A memorial service to celebrate Wendell’s life is being planned for Saturday, April 1st, 2023 at 1
PM at Manning Chapel on Brown University Green, near the corner of Waterman and Prospect
Streets. A reception will follow at 2:30 at Flatbread Company at 161 Cushing Street, off of
Thayer Street, near campus. Parking is on the street near both venues. In lieu of flowers,
donations in his name are welcomed to Hope Health Hospice of Rhode Island
(https://www.hopehealthco.org/ways-to-give/donatenow/), Partners in Health
(https://www.pih.org/donate), and the Downeast Coastal Conservancy of Maine