University honors 95-year-old math dept. founder with doctorate
July 19, 2010
By Darla Martin Tucker
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – (www.lasierra.edu) Hilmer Besel, by all accounts, remains an active learner and independent thinker at age 95. He reads books one enlarged word at a time with the help of a vision machine, a constant lover of education who attended numerous schools as a child, studied for years on his own and earned bachelor and master’s degrees in his 30s.
But while striving to broaden his own knowledge, he often placed others’ educational needs first, whether inspiring and coaching his three adopted Yugoslavian daughters, mentoring students or encouraging younger colleagues to earn doctorates ahead of him. While teaching for two decades at La Sierra University (then La Sierra College), Besel taught classes, ran things and ultimately made his own significant and lasting imprint on the university he loves: he founded the school’s math major, math department and computer science major. An early campus computer whizz, he is credited as the school’s ‘father of computers’ for his instrumental work in acquiring the college its first computer for academic use in 1975.
Meanwhile a doctoral degree eluded Besel -- that is until June 13, 2010. During La Sierra University’s commencement, Besel, who turned 95 on July 2, received an honorary Doctor of Humanitarian Service from university President Randal Wisbey. Besel stepped to the podium in black-robed regalia while his three daughters and their families watched and smiled.
“Professor Besel, La Sierra University is delighted to recognize your creativity, commitment to excellence, and diligent work that has benefited generations of students. We thank you for accepting this Doctor of Humanitarian Service, honoris causa, presented to you today for your significant contributions to our university,” Wisbey said before handing him the certificate.
“It’s a great honor for a great man,” Besel’s daughter, Sinka Razzouk said following the graduation ceremony. Besel and his late wife, Lily, adopted Sinka, her older sister, Tanya Stotz, and younger sister, Radmila Bailey, from Yugoslavia in 1963.
“We are very, very excited that he’s recognized,” Stotz said. Besel, who is typically reserved, was also pleased. “He was thrilled when he heard about this,” Stotz said. “He called me and asked if I was sitting down,” and then told her about the university’s intent to give him with the honorary title.
“He was so excited about this. I’ve never seen him so excited,” Razzouk added. “I think he could have pursued his doctorate before, but he took care of us. He’s sacrificed a lot for us.”
Despite the challenge of macular degeneration that limits his vision to outlines of objects, Besel walks to La Sierra’s campus every day from his nearby Riverside home and eats lunch in the Dining Commons. And he continues to attend math department meetings where his advice is sought by current faculty. Given his keen intellect and experience, Besel could have moved on to other institutions in years past, but he was committed to La Sierra, said Jim Beach, associate math professor and College of Arts and Sciences dean.
“He chose to stay around this campus because he wants to be around the students,” said Stotz.
From Besel’s perspective, the university’s support and acceptance of its students is a key element of its ethos. “One of the things I would say about La Sierra is the professors are open, available and the students can ask any questions,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s a real advantage of La Sierra, how the students can explore any problem.”
For the love of learning
Razzouk says one of the key lessons she’s learned from her father is to never give up. Indeed Besel’s life exemplifies one who repeatedly faces and pushes past challenges.
Besel was born in 1915 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He spoke German until he began school. He attended nine elementary and high schools in 11 years and entered college at age 31. During the years he was not in school Besel learned on his own, tackling difficult subjects without the aid of an instructor. At one point, seeking some academic guidance, he walked six miles across Winnipeg to ask his high school teacher for help with calculus problems. “Hilmer you’re on your own. You’re way beyond me in math,” the teacher said, recalled Besel.
“If he had had the opportunities that I did, he would have far outstripped me,” said Vernon Howe who attended Dartmouth College at age 28. He arrived at La Sierra in 1974 to teach math. “Hilmer just kept his eye on learning. …He’s such an honor to the Creator.”
“He in many ways is a self-made man. He largely educated himself when there was little chance of an education,” said Fred Hoyt, emeritus professor of history at La Sierra.
In 1949 Besel earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Union College in Nebraska, and in 1952 a master’s in physics from the University of Nebraska. After teaching at Union College and serving as a biophysics research assistant at Loma Linda University, he worked for Radio Corporation of America in Camden, N.J. for two years as an advanced development engineer. In 1955 he returned to California to work at the Naval ordnance laboratory in Corona. For the next six years he held various posts ranging from electronic scientist to supervisory mathematician.
In 1960, while working as a division consultant for the ordnance laboratory, he began his career at La Sierra College as an assistant professor of mathematics. He came on board at La Sierra full time in 1961. In 1962, the college graduated its first math major following Besel’s creation of the program. Others also signed up. “We had a lot of math majors, a lot of them going into medicine,” Besel said. In 1964 he began chairing the department.
Back at the ordnance laboratory, Besel had supervised use of the facility’s huge computer that handled statistical analysis of missile flight data and other information. “When I came here we began to talk computers” but it was quite a few years before the first computer arrived for academic use, Besel said. Within three years of arriving at La Sierra he established the school’s first computer science major. Students in the new major created computer programs with punch cards, then called IBM cards. Besel would take the punched cards to the ordnance center and run the cards through the large computer, printing the results. “I kept hoping we would get a computer on campus but it was still expensive for quite a few years,” Besel recalled.
Between 1958 and 1959, La Sierra’s business office purchased a small IBM computer and allowed the math and business departments use of the system one afternoon a week each. Then the college transferred its business computing to a large computer at Loma Linda University and accessed the computer over telephone lines. La Sierra rented four terminals from IBM which the math, physics, chemistry and business departments used for teaching. “These four departments began quite serious work in computing,” Besel said.
When use of the Loma Linda computer and terminals ultimately became too expensive, the departments requested their own computer resulting in the purchase of a refrigerator-sized Digital Equipment Corp. PDP11 in 1975. Students used terminals connected with the DEC computer. “That gave us our really good first computer system,” Besel said.
He continued teaching for 12 years after his official retirement, until macular degeneration got in the way. He continues to read books with the aid of a vision machine that projects words in large type on a television screen.
Those who worked with Besel over the years count him among the most brilliant individuals they have known, a person with an insatiable intellect who would ask to read colleagues’ research papers and return the documents with detailed, thoughtful suggestions and insights. He presented his ideas to academics at Stanford University and contemplated his own computer theories.
“The man is a genius,” Hoyt said. “And I haven’t met many in my lifetime. …He is a marvelous person and so was his wife.”
“He’s a very unique person,” added Howe. “…He’s a bit of a hero of mine.”
A flannel-shirted campus figure who sometimes wore a cap with ear flaps to protect against the air-conditioned cold of the computer room, Besel’s teaching and relating style was thoughtful and thought-provoking, said Howe. In class, he reframed concepts in interesting ways, Beach said. “He’s very patient and he thinks before he says things,” added daughter Stotz.
Besel’s open-minded character places all people on the same playing field. Once during an academic meeting Besel attended, someone stated that women don’t do as well with computers as men, Howe said. Besel later reflected on the comment. “‘Vernon, I’ve been thinking for two days why that’s true,’” Howe said, recalling Besel’s words. “‘I can’t think of one thing that makes a woman different from a man when it comes to working computers,’” Besel said to Howe. “He treats everybody the same,” Howe added. “To him, people are people.”
For Besel, knowledge and understanding is paramount. During his years at La Sierra, he collected scores of journals and scientific papers that accumulated in stacks around his office. At first glance a disheveled maze, Besel’s office was actually in a state of unique organization, according to Beach. Besel knew the exact whereabouts of articles and journals, including years-old documents. “If you commented to him you were interested in something you remembered from a math journal, he would say, ‘oh, I have that,’” Beach recalled. “In what seemingly was chaos was great order.”
It was a providential connection that led Besel and his wife to the girls, Besel believes. But the adoption of the three girls from the formerly communist nation involved a drawn-out and arduous process that took two years and included a three-month journey hopscotching around Europe. The poignant story played out in a local newspaper article upon the Besel’s return to Riverside.
The Besels had never had their own children and had often talked of adopting. In 1961 they happened upon an opportunity to make the dream a reality. Besel and his wife, Lily, went to a friend’s home for dinner in Buena Park that year. The friend had just returned from a church service at White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Glendale and showed the couple a church bulletin with an unusual announcement. “The first thing the lady said was, look, there’s some children that need to be adopted,” Besel said. Three Yugoslavian girls, ages 9, 11 and 13, had lost their mother and were in need of a home. The Besels contacted the woman listed in the church bulletin. “When we said we were interested in all three [girls], she said, ‘you’re it,’” said Besel.
The Besels found themselves engulfed in a complicated two-year adoption process that culminated with a trip to Yugoslavia in 1963. After a cross-country car trip to New York, the couple parked their vehicle in a lot for Adventist television broadcast Faith for Today where it stayed for three months. They took a reduced-fare flight to London, rented a Volkswagen truck and motored through Germany where they relied on their German language skills. After driving through Switzerland they finally reached Yugoslavia where they waited five weeks for the completion of documentation to take the girls to the United States.
During the long wait for documents they spent their days at the Seventh-day Adventist Conference office in Belgrade where Hilmer Besel began teaching the sisters English with English/Yugoslavian vocabulary books. Along the new family’s circuitous journey home by way of Naples, Paris, Brussels and London, the Besels would hold daily devotions, reading a Bible passage in English and asking the girls to read a passage in their own language.
After arriving back in New York, the family made their final long journey by car across the United States. After crossing the Colorado River into the California town of Needles, Besel was so happy to be home, he stopped the car, got out and kissed the ground, he said with a smile.
Back in Riverside, the Besels enrolled their daughters in La Sierra Academy. At home, Hilmer Besel strived to engage their minds in fun ways. “Every time we sat at the table [for a meal] he would tell us a riddle. ‘What is once in man, twice in mom and never in a thousand years?’” Razzouk said, recalling one of her father’s brainteasers. “The letter ‘M’.”
“He believed in education and always encouraged us,” Stotz said. “And he always felt proud whenever we did well. …We are very grateful he took a chance on us.”
The sisters are married and between them have seven children including Sinka Razzouk’s son, John Razzouk, program management enrollment counselor in La Sierra’s School of Business. On June 16, John Razzouk and his wife, Lovelyn, became parents with the birth of son Jack Ryan, and Sinka Razzouk became a “nana.” Looking back, Sinka summed up the events that had occurred over the decades, the unplanned connections that led to present circumstances. “It’s amazing how God leads,” she said.
PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University