Remembering Professor Thomas Otway
Tuesday April 5 marked a day of great loss for the greater Yeshiva University community as it suffered the loss of Professor Thomas Otway, a distinguished and popular professor on campus for over twenty-five years after a heart attack. After receiving his PhD from New York University’s prestigious Tandon School of Engineering, Professor Otway joined the ranks of Yeshiva’s mathematics department, where he would eventually rise to be chair for both Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women. He would also go on to be chair of the computer science department on both campuses, and helped found Yeshiva University’s graduate program for mathematics. In 2015, he won the Dean Karen Bacon Faculty Award.
But above all, he was a popular professor who was loved for his wit, eccentricities, and caring for his students’ well-being.
Dr. Otway was “A man of incredible wit. Always sharp, but he never hurt when he cut”, according to Joshua Skootsky, a senior math major who took Otway for multivariable calculus. Many of his students commented about Otway’s quick sarcastic humor, and how this always kept class interesting. Ariel Chernofsky, a YC graduate from May 2015, recalled a story of Otway promising a car for whoever would do the most problems on the board by the end of the semester. When the time came, Professor Otway handed the winner a small matchbox car telling the student “I told you that you’d get a car”.
In addition to his strong passion for mathematics, Professor Otway also displayed his love of art. Some of his former students tell over the story of how he always wanted to be an artist, and how as a mathematician he was able to express his artistic talents. “Normally, math problems involving the measurements of globes, you would just draw a sphere and proceed to the doing the problem. Otway, however would start sketching The United States and other countries”, said Shaya First, a YC graduate who took Otway for five classes. First also recalls how Otway would discuss what he called old hat and new hat math, where Otway would drop what he was doing and literally start drawing an old beat up hat and a newer, hipper baseball cap. Danny Poritz, a senior computer science major, remembers an incident where Otway suddenly broke out and began to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets from memory.
But most importantly, Professor Otway was loved for devotion to his students. Poritz tells over a story about how Otway sent him over to the Beren campus to listen to a prospective computer science professor give a lecture. He describes how Otway arranged for him to get a cab downtown, and make the trip as easy as possible. When Otway heard the cab did not arrive, he made a whole fuss to make sure that he would get back safely. Many of his students rave about how where most professors give short curt responses to their emails, if any at all, Professor Otway would take the time to write out lengthy thought messages to students queries. Sarah Nagar, a senior at Stern who at the last minute switched to to a computer science major, details how she “always received lengthy replies from him outlining and explaining why I should take a certain course and not another--even if it was at 1:00 AM. He bent over backwards to meet with me to discuss my future”. She details how when she was first seeking guidance from Professor Otway he really took the time to get to know her, and did not just view her as another GPA.
Nagar’s limited experience with Dr. Otway had such a profound impact on her that she was moved to compile a book honoring Professor Otway’s memory that will be sent to his family. According to Nagar the book has “gotten about fifteen responses so far; from students who took his classes in the 1990s, to current students, to students who have never met him, to students who have only had one interaction with him, but that one interaction was memorable”.
In the meantime, Otway’s teaching duties are being split between Professor Wenxiong Chen and Professor Freddy Zypman, while his administrative duties will be assumed by others. Detailing the difficulty of refilling all the positions left vacant with Otway’s passing, Dr. Marini said “It’s a lot of work to pick up. He was doing a lot”.
Needless to say, Professor Otway’s personality will be sorely missed by many here at Yeshiva University.