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John Bukowski

Professor of Mathematics

John Bukowski

"I knew intuitively from my first semester that I wanted to be a professor," he says smiling. "I said to myself, 'This is where I want to be forever.'"

There are those who might say that this classroom epiphany was somewhat pre-ordained. He had always been the kid at school who was ahead of the class at math. He also loved to help other kids figure out the math that came so easily to him. He never held a grueling summer job flipping burgers, waiting tables or working retail. "I have never had a job outside of academics," he says. "I had summer jobs tutoring math. My grueling summer job was explaining algebra to eighth-graders."

Although he knew early he was destined for the classroom, the path to the blackboard was hardly a straightforward solution. Besides, Bukowski was never the clicheALd disheveled math guy in the corner writing incomprehensible equations on a weathered chalkboard. Not that he couldn't do that if he wanted to, it's just that he has other interests.

The piano, for example. The cello. The organ. Family. Christiaan Huygens. OK, that one's a little obscure (Huygens was a 17th-century Dutch mathematician renowned for explaining light waves) but it just means he loves math history. Such eclecticism really comes from his own multifaceted childhood.

Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bethel Park, the son of an engineer and a mechanical draftswoman, Bukowski sort of knew he had a facility for math. In fact he believes some students have a gift for math and that he was one of them. "It's like that even among mathematicians," he explains. "There are good and great mathematicians and then there are those brilliant people who instantly understand complex problems."

One aspect of life that Bukowski instantly understood was that math was not his entire life. In fact, he found out pretty early that music would play a major chord in his character. "We had a piano in the basement and I would mess around on it, but my parents recognized there was something there," he recalls. As for the cello, that's a different melody. "I picked the cello because I was the smallest kid all through school and the cello was the biggest instrument."

There's also the mathematics of music--the rhythms are mathematical--with half notes, quarter notes. "There is a relationship there," he says. "There are six of us in the (math) department and three play the piano." He also recognizes the romance of music, since he met his wife, math professor Cathy Stenson, when she sang in the Brown University Catholic Choir and he was the group's pianist.

In fact, although he never really entertained thoughts of playing professionally, Bukowski chose his undergraduate college, Carnegie Mellon University, in large part because they had a music program and he could devote time to both interests.

"If I worked in math, I could be involved in music, but if you work in music, you can't be involved with math. It's too time-consuming," he says.

When he headed off to graduate school at Brown University, his interest in music and perhaps more importantly, his interest in remaining in a college classroom, followed, although in retrospect, he didn't make it easy for himself. "I was in the applied math program, which means you work on math with real-world applications, and there were not a lot of opportunities to get in a classroom. I started to ask to teach classes," Bukowski says.

Over time, the mathematician added up that he was much more satisfied in front of a blackboard than working on business applications. He also knew that the best place for him would be a small college where teaching was highly valued. One problem. He'd never attended a small college. "As a chair when we are hiring people, one of the things I look for is small college experience and I didn't have any," he says with a laugh. After applying to 93 small colleges (mathematicians tend to remember such statistics), he came to interview at Juniata. "I had to work hard to convince them I could teach at a place like Juniata."

Evidently, whatever he said worked, because he taught his first class in 1997 and hasn't stopped since. His first two years were tough, because Cathy was finishing her doctoral studies at Cornell and both spent a lot of time driving between New York and Pennsylvania. Ultimately, the couple and the College solved the "two body problem" (this is a math joke) of having a couple on a small faculty with the same area of expertise by having the two share estimates his time as "about five-sixths." The couple has two sons, Daniel, 10, and David, 7.

Aside from ruminating on lesson plans, departmental problems and math problems, Bukowski also remains involved on campus by spending time as the College organist (he plays opening and spring convocations, Commencement and Baccalaureate), a gig he finds satisfying and entertaining. "At Commencement, I don't have to sit in the crowded faculty section, but I have to pay attention because I'm now sitting up front," he says.

This year, he's branching out into performing. He's giving a recital at Rosenberger Auditorium March 28 and traveling to Brazil to perform as well, a connection he made when accompanying the Juniata Concert Choir when Brazilian choral director Cicero Alves taught at the College for a semester. His playlist is eclectic and includes pieces by Scott Joplin and Brazilian tango composer Ernesto Nazareth. "I've always thought it was important for students to see faculty outside the classroom and involved in campus activities," he says. "And having a 'world tour' will be fun. I don't think I will be doing any tour T-shirts though."

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