Dr. Charlie Franke
By Ronald Infante
I first met Charles Franke in September of 1958. Although he was only a couple of years older than I, he was my Calculus II instructor, freshly discharged from the US Army and eager to resume his mathematical studies. The school was Newark Rutgers, his alma mater, and he was enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the New Brunswick campus. Our textbook was superb, being very rigorous and yet, for the most part, readable by freshmen. Charlie assumed we knew all about limits as he launched into a rigorous treatment of the Riemann integral. For long forgotten reasons or maybe fear, we didn’t point out our deficiency and muddled through as best we could. But he knew or sensed our difficulty and singled out those of us who did learn to do proofs by taking us under his wing and giving us more mathematics than is normal for undergraduates. It was exhilarating.
Over the rest of my time at Newark Rutgers, I had at least one course with Charlie every semester. He was a marvelous lecturer. Each class began with the same question: “Are there any questions from last time?” These being disposed of he would start on the new material. Formal matters were reserved for the front board. From time to time, he would break from the formal material and write motivational things on a sideboard and then resume the formal presentation. This was a style that he continued to use at Seton Hall. But these classes were only part of his teaching.
At the time, Newark Rutgers was housed in a motley collection of old buildings spread across several blocks of downtown Newark. We didn’t really have a student center. So some of us gravitated to the math department between classes. It could be raucous, it could be argumentative, it could be scholarly, but it was always fun. Most of the students at Newark Rutgers, as was Charlie, were the children of blue-collar families. Thus, this was our first exposure to what an intellectual life might be like. Beyond all the mathematics Charlie taught me, the most important thing was that, if I so chose, I could belong to that life.
Years later, we both landed in the mathematics department at Seton Hall University, where Charlie provided a focal point for the energetic young faculty then.. Charlie helped all of us, whether we were freshly minted Ph.Ds. entering into the profession or in the throes of writing our dissertations. Maybe the most important lesson was that research and teaching are complementary. Charlie was an excellent research mathematical and a marvelous teacher. One activity was used to supplement the other.
Charlie’s main research was in the area of Difference Algebra. It is difficult to explain what this about so let me just say that he proved the foundational theorems for a Galois Theory of linear difference equations. His papers are clearly written. The series stretch over a ten-year period and cover a wide range of topics culminating in a theorem on the normality of linear difference field extensions. It was a significant achievement and earned him a well-deserved promotion to full professor.
Not everything we did in that bygone day was academic. There were significant extra-curricular events. These included faculty/student softball and football games and an annual mathematics department dinner. But the most important was our end-of-semester excursions to the Star Tavern Pizzeria. After exams were over and final grades (hopefully) submitted, math students and faculty would repair to the Star Tavern for a few beers and a lot of pizza. Generally, we argued about the National Football League or baseball, topics we all had informed and deeply held opinions (or not). Charlie was an avid sports fan, attached in his fandom to the Mets and New York Giants.
It was under Charlie’s tenure as chairman that the department obtained the funding that allowed us to invite speakers from various universities. It is my understanding that the current Charles Franke Memorial Lectures derive from this series. I think I gave the first of these and it was a great pleasure to honor my friend, teacher and colleague in that way. Those of you who never had the chance to learn under Charlie have missed something special. Those of us who did have been much richer for it.