Cover photo for Robert McDowell's Obituary
Robert McDowell Profile Photo
1927 Robert 2022

Robert McDowell

December 1, 1927 — November 9, 2022

Robert Hull McDowell died peacefully in his sleep on Nov. 9, 2022, in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. He was 94 years old and was preceded in death by his loving wife, Attje Sikkema McDowell.

Professor McDowell, or Bob as he was known by colleagues and friends, had an extraordinary career and life, excelling in both academia and creative pursuits. But he will be remembered most for his gentle and kind spirit, his zest for learning and his unbridled curiosity.

Bob spent 40 years at Washington University in St.Louis, joining as an assistant professor in 1960 and later becoming the chairman of the mathematics department, a position he held from 1974 to 1990. During that time, he co-authored a calculus textbook and helped shape Compton and Fulbright students, some of the brightest minds in mathematics. After leaving the department, he was named the first director of the school's Teaching Center, where he helped develop new courses and innovative teaching methods that were adopted university wide.

While Bob was curious and excelled in areas reaching far beyond mathematics, his aptitude and interest in the sciences was apparent at an early age. After earning two Bachelor's degrees and a Master's at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s, he joined the U.S. Army as part of a high-speed computing team. In the '50s he worked on the Eniac, Edvac, and Univac, several of the world's first computers at the renowned Argonne National Laboratory. He earned a PhD from Purdue University in 1959 with a dissertation on general topology.

While at Washington University, Bob and Attje became an integral part of campus life. Warm gatherings in their home were remembered by both professors and undergraduates as some of their most treasured university experiences. Writers Jorges Borgesa and Alan Paton were among a long list of musicians, singers, politicians and industry leaders to speak at those events.

Bob was also a lifelong lover of classical music, starting off in a boys' choir and eventually going on to become a distinguished tenor. He performed publicly for years and continued to sing almost daily until his death. Bob also had a deep appreciation of chess, checkers, literature and poetry, filling his home with thousands of books - books that continued to be among his most cherished possessions. He had an amazing memory. Well into his 80s, he could rattle off lines from poems and books he remembered from his youth. Bob also had a proficiency in languages. He learned and became fluent in Dutch to impress his wife and her family in the Netherlands and picked up enough Czech and Japanese to speak easily with locals while traveling.

Bob had a long list of surprising and unusual talents. He was once spotted by a Duncan YoYo representative showing off "walk-the-dog," "the elevator" and other complicated tricks and asked if he wanted a job touring his yoyoing skills. He could juggle five balls while balancing on a bongo board. He fenced, played badminton and awed children throughout the course of his life with magic tricks.

Bob is survived by daughters, Andrea, Erin, and Robin, and grandchildren, Kelsey Binder, Taylor Binder, and Ty Hawkins.

He and Attje will be greatly missed by all who knew them.

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