July 25, 2023

Dear Members of the Hobart and William Smith Community,

I write with the sad news that Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Hobart alumnus Irving O. Bentsen ’54 died a week ago at the age of 95. An engaged educator, insightful mathematician and friend to the Colleges’ community, Professor Bentsen inspired students and colleagues for 35 years with his energetic teaching and exemplary mentorship. From our first days in Geneva, Irv Bentsen was a welcoming and engaged community member.  I admired his commitment to the Colleges, his students and our alums -- and I always appreciated his skills at the piano. 

Born September 23, 1927 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Professor Bentsen was the son of Otman and Aline Pedersen Bentsen of Norway. After an accident at age 14 led to blindness, he enrolled at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, graduating in 1950. That fall he entered Hobart, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Druid Society. After receiving a B.A. in mathematics cum laude, he went on to earn a M.A. from the University of Rochester, returned to HWS as an instructor of mathematics, earned his Ph.D. from Rutgers University and taught at the University of Vermont before joining HWS as an assistant professor in 1966, reaching full professor a decade later. 

“He had a voice that reached into all students,” says Associate Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Computer Science David Belding, who was mentored by Professor Bentsen and remained in touch with him. “He was highly respected, methodical and had a Socratic method to his teaching, particularly abstract algebra. He would talk it through, and they would have to go slowly. He was a guide who didn’t lose direction as he would lead them through each course.” 

Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Computer Science Kevin Mitchell recalls that, “From my own interactions with Irv, I was always struck by his attention to detail, his interest in trying to do what was always right and best for the student. I know he had a number of students who were very loyal to him, fond of him. He was always clear on details.”  

Professor Mitchell also shared that “Irv loved good beer and all types of music,” remembering fondly their conversations about jazz.

Highly regarded as a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher, Professor Bentsen is remembered by former students for his love of mathematics and the generous yet challenging tenor of his instruction. His primary research focus was abstract partial difference algebra, though he enjoyed teaching all mathematics courses from abstract algebra to number theory to post-calculus probability.

Professor Bentsen served the Colleges’ community with the same energy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail characteristic of his teaching. The Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science for seven years, he also served as president of the Colleges’ Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Zeta of New York, and was the first president of the Druid Society when it returned to campus in 1981.

Professor Bentsen was awarded an Alumni Association Citation in 1979 as a “revered teacher” and the Faculty Community Service Award in 1981 in recognition of his work on behalf of his colleagues. When Professor Bentsen retired in 1991, the Board of Trustees named him Professor Emeritus, and the Alumni and Alumnae Associations recognized him with the Distinguished Faculty Award in 1998. During the DFA ceremony, he was praised for “his character, teaching, leadership and loyalty to the Colleges…an inspiration to Hobart and William Smith students, his colleagues and his community.” Created with gifts from alums in honor of his retirement, The Irving Bentsen ’54 Prize is given each year to a second year student who has the most outstanding record in mathematics and computer science. 

Professor Bentsen was married to the late Jane Hoose Bentsen ’54, and together they had two sons, James and Eric

Professor Bentsen’s son, Jim, explains that for a blind person in the 1950s, the prospect of professional employment was very much an open question. “Hobart and William Smith Colleges did something extraordinary. They offered Dad a temporary two-year appointment so that Mom and Dad could work together to develop research and teaching techniques that might enable Dad to pursue an academic career. They were eternally grateful to the Colleges and to Professors Walter Durfee (Jim’s Godfather), Robert Beinert and Abigail Mosey for creating this opportunity.”  

Chaplain and Dean of Spiritual Engagement Nita Byrd is working with Professor Bentsen’s family on the funeral service to be held in Saint John’s Chapel on August 9 at 10:30 a.m. with a reception to follow in the Blackwell Room.

Let us keep Professor Bentsen’s loved ones, and his admirable legacy as an alum and faculty member, in our thoughts.


Mark D. Gearan