In Memoriam: Richard Elderkin, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Environmental Analysis

Richard Elderkin

Richard Elderkin, emeritus professor of mathematics and environmental analysis, died of Alzheimer’s disease on March 9, 2020. He was 74.  

Elderkin joined the Pomona College faculty in 1974 and taught at the College until his retirement in 2013. Among the courses he taught were Linear Algebra, Mathematical Modeling, and Quantitative Environmental Decision Making. One former student noted that Elderkin was “extremely generous with his time in helping me with research … he is very good at helping students put together difficult topics.” Another former student recalled Elderkin’s Classic Environmental Readings discussion-based course and said, “He always kept things interesting by guiding the discussion with provocative questions.” Elderkin gave students a large share of autonomy, the student said, allowing them “to take an active part in choosing some of the readings, giving us greater insight into what makes a work related to the environment important.”

A recipient of various Mellon Foundation grants for his research, Elderkin was an expert in mathematical population ecology with a research focus in mathematical modeling. Offering their collective reflections on his impact on the College’s Math Department, Professors Jo Hardin, Ami Radunskaya and Shahriar Shahriari noted that, together with Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Kenneth Cook, it was Elderkin who first gave Pomona a national presence in mathematical modeling, leading several teams to first place in the national Mathematical Contest in Modeling. “While at Pomona, he worked closely with students doing research on interdisciplinary problems and dynamical systems, generating excitement for how broadly mathematics can be used. Several of us are grateful to Rick for bringing us to Pomona College,” Hardin, Radunskaya and Shahriari wrote.

They remember that “Rick was often spotted riding his bike around campus and up and down the mountains. He was always happy to talk to students and colleagues about how to get out and explore the wilderness beyond our walls. We will miss him.”

Professor Char Miller, director of the 5C Environmental Analysis Program (EA), remembers his colleague Elderkin as “a remarkably generous soul, gifted teacher and dedicated collaborator. One of the founding faculty of the EA Program, Rick taught a superb seminar on environmental literature—far from his field in math, but close to his heart—and several generations of EA students were the lucky recipients of his insights and engagements.”

Rick Hazlett, emeritus professor and past coordinator of the EA Program, says Elderkin, who helped launch and guide Pomona’s EA Program 20 years ago, was a community-minded mathematician.

“He had a great laugh, an ever approachable, attentive, good natured personality, and absolute devotion to the importance not only of teaching mathematics to his young students, but doing so in a meaningful way,” Hazlett remembers.

An engaged citizen here in Claremont, Elderkin’s years of civic service included chairing the City of Claremont Community Services Commission and volunteering with both the Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts, among other activities.

A native of Butte, Montana, he received his bachelor’s degree from Whitman College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Elderkin is survived by his wife Linda Puryear Elderkin, his children Katherine and Christopher, and two grandchildren.

A memorial service for Richard Elderkin will take place at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 19 at Claremont United Church of Christ (233 Harrison Ave., Claremont). In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to AgingNext Memory Center