My Memory of Professor Karl Menger, 1948-1949
Karl Menger was an unusual and colorful character. He was a brilliant refugee from Austria, an acclaimed child prodigy and son of a well known musician. In 1938, while he was on a visit to the U.S., the Nazis took over Austria and he cabled his reaction to the new order by resigning his academic position in Vienna. Menger had a thick German accent. His hair was usually unruly, his limited wardrobe was always rumpled and he wore the same awful tie day after day, spots and all. But he was a superb and innovative teacher, having reformed the teaching of calculus.
Karl Menger was a demonstrative teacher; he was like a maestro conducting an opera of mathematics in the lecture hall. His classes were attended by some 100 students, seated in a stadium theater arrangement; the lectures being supplemented with smaller study workshops tutored by his teaching assistants. On the front walls of the lecture hall were eight very large, rectangular black boards which the professor would fill up in rapid succession with theorems and formulas, accentuating the written material with a rapid staccato lecture. It was pure theatre.
Now, Menger had a tendency to roam from one side of the lecture hall to the other. In order to limit the range of his constantly shifting position, he judiciously placed chairs at each extreme of the bank of blackboards. He had, however, one more problem. The large surface of the blackboards, coupled with his rapid ability to write and fill them up, necessitated the continuously tedious task of erasing the surface so that he could restart the process once more.
One day, Menger entered the lecture hall with several oversized erasers; they seemed to be about one by two feet in size. He proclaimed that he had custom-ordered these erasers so that he could restore the blackboards to their blank status with only a few swoops.
Menger had a tradition of adding extra credit problems to his examinations. In one critical final exam, Calculus I, I finished both the regular exam as well as the extra portion. In order for the students to obtain their test result and final grade for the course, it was customary to provide the teacher with a self-addressed postcard. This I did and received back the notation that I had done well, and that, in fact, I had received an A*, also known as an A-Star. Professor Menger, whose eccentricities were well known, added the handwritten comment, "Why don't I see more of you?" As if I hadn't sat religiously in his classes for over a year.
The story does not stop here. Menger insisted that the school's administration recognize his anointed A* as a grade above A and give it an additional one point value to 4.0 (the A had a point value of 3). This additional point balanced the B that I received in Physics and therefore I maintained an A average for the first semester of the school year 1948-1949. Menger won his argument and I must have been the first IIT student with the highest single grade-value ever.