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By Lata Punetha
It is with heavy hearts that we bid farewell to a true visionary and leader, Ronald (Ron) Garth Dunkley, long time faculty member in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo, the founding director of the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC), and the co-creator of the Canadian Mathematics Competition. Ron passed away on February 19, 2023, after a brief illness. In this tribute, we celebrate Ron’s life, honour his legacy, and remember him for the many ways in which he enriched our lives and the lives of countless others.
Ron began his career as a high school mathematics teacher at Kingsville D.H.S and later at St. Mary’s D.C.V.S. where he was department head. The idea which led to the ultimate creation of the CEMC was born at a professional development workshop for high school mathematics teachers in 1962. Four high school mathematics teachers were concerned that their students were not prepared for American high school math contests and decided to launch a mathematics contest for high school students in District 10 (where the four of them taught), helping these students improve their mathematical problem-solving abilities. These four educators - Ron Dunkley, Ed Anderson, Don Attridge and Bill Nediger collaborated with Ralph Stanton and Ken Fryer from the University of Waterloo and a few days later, the math contests were born.
Roughly 350 local students attempted the District 10 mathematics contest in the first year. Over the course of six decades, one contest became a dozen contests which reach students in various grades, starting from Grade 7, and the contests moved formally under the University’s umbrella. Today, more than 265 000 students in over 80 countries register for the various contests offered by the CEMC. The contests are not only geared towards students but also facilitate the growth and support of a network of mathematics teachers on a global level, through contest development meetings and marking events. By offering a platform that fosters professional development, these contests allow teachers from different schools to interact and share innovative ideas.
Steve Brown, Professor Emeritus from the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science and a former Director of the CEMC adds,
Ron would say that schools had sports programs for talented athletes that involved students, coaches and practicing for competitions, so why not have something similar for talented math students? Teachers who are invited to sit on committees to prepare the contests view this as valuable professional development. Students who do well on the contests come to the attention of the math faculty at an early age. These contests are one very important reason for the success of the Faculty of Math at Waterloo in attracting some of the best students from across Canada. Ron loved to talk about the young math students that he met through the contests, and how he was amazed at how brilliant they were. He would talk about students from every era of his time at Waterloo with affection and admiration.
After collaborating with the University of Waterloo for the Canadian Mathematics Competitions, Ron's association with the institution grew stronger, and in 1967, he joined the University of Waterloo. He dedicated the better part of his career to the University, gradually climbing up the ranks to become the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Mathematics and the Director of the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing when it was founded in 1995. As part of his efforts to promote the university, Ron was a pivotal member of the team that visited schools across the country to identify and recruit young talent. During these visits, he even used his musical talent and played the trumpet to attract students to Waterloo. His enthusiastic efforts influenced many talented students to join Waterloo, significantly contributing to the early development of the Faculty of Mathematics.
As a founder of the World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions, Ron held the prestigious position of its president. He also served as the Deputy Leader of the Canadian Team for the International Math Olympiad in 1986, a role that brought him immense pride. Ron's unwavering dedication to mathematics education earned him several accolades in Canada. In recognition of his instrumental work in developing mathematics contests in Canada, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1996. Ron also received numerous other awards, including the Descartes Medal in 1987, the Paul Erdos Award in 1994, and the Adrien Pouliot Award for his significant contributions to Mathematics Education in 1997.
Remembering Ron, Rt. Hon. David Johnston, Former Governor General of Canada and Former President, University of Waterloo, shares,
I will remember him with such admiration. He was one of those very special few that created a culture that permitted the University of Waterloo to become the most innovative higher education enterprise in Canada’s last half century. He was the collaborative leader par excellence bringing other good souls to the ideas and then executing on them. In all of this he was such an inspiration to others.
Ron was a man of varied interests – he loved music since a young age and he played brass instruments, performing with the Salvation Army Band, Weston Silver Band, and the University of Waterloo Symphony, as well as serving as chair of the board of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. Ron had a strong interest in sports, having worked as the statistician for the Warriors football, hockey and basketball teams during their early days. In addition, he participated in several matches with the "Waterloo Worriers", an old-timers hockey team, which comprised faculty and staff who got together on Wednesday nights for pick-up hockey. These matches provided an opportunity for friendly banter and post-game refreshments in the locker room.
Bev Marshman, Adjunct Associate Professor at the CEMC shared an anecdote about Ron’s congenial nature,
I have one very warm memory of an early afternoon on Christmas Eve. I was in my office working on some exam grades, and Ron came to my door and invited me to join him with a small group who had gathered in the dean’s office to offer one another good cheer on this cold winter day… a small gift of inclusion that meant a lot. That’s the kind of man he was.
He was a passionate leader and a delightful colleague, with a remarkable eagerness to embrace novel ideas. But above all, he was a math educator at heart, who dedicated a significant portion of his career to empowering students with the tools to unlock their potential and revel in the joys of mathematics. Together with his colleagues, he worked tirelessly on projects aimed at helping students overcome math phobia and discover their passion for the subject. His unwavering support and enthusiasm were instrumental in driving the extraordinary growth and success of CEMC.
Over a period of more than 40 years, Ron worked tirelessly to promote mathematics and to inspire young people to consider math in a new light. All of us in the CEMC are proud to continue the work that he and others started., says Ian VanderBurgh, current Director of the CEMC.
Today, we take solace in the knowledge that he touched the lives of so many and made a lasting impact at the CEMC, the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo and the wider academic community. We honour Ron's contributions, admire his achievements, and express our gratitude for his invaluable presence in our lives.
Special thanks to Bev Marshman, Rt. Hon. David Johnston, Ed Anderson, Jeff Anderson, Michelle Dunkley, Steve Brown, and Susan Dunkley for their invaluable insights that were instrumental in crafting this tribute. We deeply appreciate their time and effort in providing their expertise, which made this article possible.