Making space for exploration and connection

Mathematics alum's gift to Altgeld project helps preserve friendly environment
Mary and Matthew Deady
Alumnus Matthew Deady and his wife Mary have given generously to the Altgeld Hall renovation project, supporting spaces for faculty and students to collaborate. 

When Matthew Deady (BS, ‘75, mathematics and physics; MS, ‘77, mathematics) remembers his time at the University of Illinois, Altgeld Hall stands out as a friendly, inviting place.

“Anything I was interested in, someone would tell me, this is who you talk to about what course to take or book to read. There was always a professor who would take the time to talk to you,” he recalls. Altgeld’s architecture, with faculty offices side by side with classrooms, was part of that friendly environment, lowering the barrier for Deady to talk with and get advice from faculty mentors like Kenneth Appel, one of the Illinois mathematicians who proved the Four Color Theorem in 1976. “That made it possible for me to explore.”

His own lengthy career as a college educator gave Deady additional appreciation for the role physical space plays in how students connect with one another and with faculty. At Bard College, where he joined the faculty in 1987 and remains an emeritus professor, there is a lab near his office where students often gather between classes to study and hang out.

“The fact I was right there meant I could hear them out there being confused, and I could wander out and help them out,” he said. “I also saw how the students who got the most out of their education were the ones who formed bonds with one another and learned how to work together.

“I think we underplay the need for physical space for collaborative work to happen, for faculty and for students,” Deady added.

Thanks to a generous gift from Deady and his wife, Mary, Altgeld will continue to provide faculty and students with those critical spaces for collaboration and exploration. A large conference room and a registered student organization office will bear their names. 

“The College of LAS is grateful to Dr. and Mrs. Deady for their generous gift in support of student spaces and students in the renovated Altgeld Hall,” said mathematics professor Sheldon Katz, who also serves as a coordinator and special advisor for the project. “The Department of Mathematics will be able to provide its students with new spaces designated for student clubs, as well as new spaces that can be used flexibly for group study, office hours for large classes, informal interactions, and more.”

Deady still marvels at opportunities and experiences he found as a U of I student. Taking a wide range of courses across the College of LAS was key. “You need to know how to ask the questions, and…the LAS background at Illinois helped me question everything,” he said. 

The research he participated in as an operator of the linear accelerator at Illinois’ Nuclear Physics Laboratory helped prepare him for his PhD program at MIT, and his advanced mathematics degree helped him “be the bridge between the experimentalists and the theoreticians” during his years conducting research at the Bates Accelerator Laboratory. The training and experience he gained during his graduate studies provided a foundation for his decades teaching at Bard. But he also appreciates the $1 movies shown by campus clubs on the weekend, the variety of music in venues around town, and getting to know people from many different backgrounds while living in the residence halls.

“Whatever you were interested in, you could find 100 other people who were interested too, and that was the critical mass to get it done,” he said. “That happened to me in place after place on campus.”

He wants to ensure that future students have similar opportunities.

“I feel an obligation to help students have the experience I had. Places like Illinois, where there are people who are really good at a whole lot of things, they need to be supported.”

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Trish Barker