Professor of Mathematics
October 16, 1993
Walter Hetherington Durfee was born in Genva in 1889. He was tutored privately by his father, Professor William Pratt Durfee, and by his mother’s uncle, Dr. Joseph McDaniels, head of the Classics department at Hobart College. Walter had a natural aptitude for his studies and entered Hobart at the age of 15. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was graduated in 1908, at the age of 19.
He earned the M.C.E. degree from Harvard in 1911 and, after ten years spent working as a professional engineer, he returned to Geneva in 1921 and began his 38-year career as a teacher of mathematics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He was appointed head of the mathematics department in 1929 and received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1930. His students remember him as a complete teacher who guided them through the difficulties of calculus and its practical applications in probability, physics, and chemistry. His dry wit, practical nature, and infinite patience in and out of the classroom convinced all students that they could master the mysteries of applied mathematics.
In 1937 Dr. Durfee was appointed acting dean of Hobart College. He then became dean in 1938, served as acting president in 1947-48, and was appointed to the newly created post of provost in 1948. When he was dean, he sought out and brought to the Colleges many fine teachers, whom he nurtured and encouraged.
During his career he received many citations for excellence as a teacher, a friend to students, and a leader in the fortunes of the Colleges. In one citation, presented to him by the William Smith Alumnae Council, his former students said of him:
“For nearly 40 years you have been a firm friend of young people at Hobart and William Smith Colleges...you never forgot what is most important in the search for understanding, the regard of the teacher for the student. Above all, we are grateful for the high standard of excellence which you raised for us and graciousness with which you did so.”
A contributor of technical articles in several mathematical and chemical periodicals, he was a member of several mathematical societies, an active walker, skier, and mountain hiker. Despite his heavy responsibilities at the Colleges, he also found time to serve his church and his city. When he retired in 1959, Dr. Durfee was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Science, and he still found time and energy to teach classes in advanced mathematics and serve as advisor to honors candidates.
Dr. Durfee died in his sleep on December 21, 1973. He was deeply mourned by the many people whose lives he had touched.