The Boundless Spirit of Van A

A polymath is defined as a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning; a person whose expertise spans a significant number of subject areas, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. It was John van Alstyne’s love for learning, teaching, encouraging, facilitating, and connecting that brought him to his innumerable interests, passions, and accomplishments. And the fact that he brought them all to WPI for his extended tenure here is something for which many of us are forever grateful.

His polymath abilities first evinced themselves in his time at Hamilton College. During his studies there he participated in the debate team, edited the campus newspaper, served as chairman of the executive committee of the College Church, directed and played bassoon in the college band, edited his college yearbook, and managed the varsity soccer team. He was awarded scholarships in both mathematics, at which he excelled, and German. At various times he has also enjoyed playing bassoon, piano, cello, and violin, as well as etching and oil painting. His diverse interests and his unique ability to connect with and support others marked him as an ideal candidate to come to WPI during the tremendous changes the school underwent over his nearly 30 years here.

Theory and Practice

The WPI motto, Lehr Und Kunst, can be loosely translated as “Theory and Practice” or “Learning and Skilled Arts.” It expands the breadth of learning to include the practice of technology. Focusing on the practice moves us from learning what technology is to a broader focus on what technology can do in the world, how it can best be applied, and the ways we can give our scientific discoveries feet on the ground to change both experiences and lives.  Henry David Thorough put it this way: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” And so John Van Alstyne did.

His enthusiasm for understanding and helping to mitigate the challenges students faced, both academic and otherwise, seemed boundless. To honor his contributions to WPI and the special place he occupies in our hearts, the WPI community is raising funds to name a space and create a visual remembrance of him that will benefit students for generations to come and serve as a memorial to his work here. To be able to name this space in WPI’s new academic building, currently under construction, we are working to raise $500,000, and we are more than halfway there. I invite anyone whose life he touched to contribute if they feel moved to do so. [UPDATE: The goal has been reached; see the note at the end of this article.)

“His enthusiasm for understanding and helping to mitigate the challenges students faced, both academic and otherwise, seemed boundless.”

John van Alstyne was originally drawn to mathematics due to his passion for architecture. He lacked several units to achieve his Hamilton degree but was asked to teach math as an instructor for Air Force officers who were studying to become meteorologists. Although this delayed his graduation by a year, it whetted his lifelong passion for education.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree and honors in both Math and German, he used his scholarship to study math at Princeton. Due to World War II, most of Princeton’s professors were involved in the war effort, so graduate courses were hard to come by. He worked for three years in banking, teaching trainees in the fiduciary arts, before returning to Hamilton as a math instructor.

The Start of a Career

He taught at Hamilton until 1961, when he moved to Massachusetts and began teaching mathematics as an associate professor at WPI; he was promoted to full professor in 1966. In addition to teaching math, he served as dean of academic advising from 1971 to 1987, serving as director for ten of those years. During this time, he changed the face of WPI forever.

John van Alstyne was affectionately known during his WPI tenure as van A. His concern for students was renowned, as he went above and beyond to ensure students survived and thrived in WPI’s challenging academic environment. He was known for his honest and enthusiastic efforts to understand and mitigate students’ problems, both academic and non-academic. When he said he provided extra help, he meant it in a way few other teachers or advisors ever could.

Van A’s first major contribution to WPI was to spearhead and help craft the WPI Plan. As a tireless advocate for improvements to WPI’s educational plan, he worked to forge a WPI that would help drive accomplished students to excel, and encourage struggling students to persist and, eventually, succeed. In a January 1964 article in Tech News, he expressed concern that the academic pace for the first two years at WPI, and the freshman year in particular, was much too hectic. He expressed a desire for more academic freedom in those first two years, and a chance to select a five-year program if desired. He felt it was imperative that liberal arts courses and requirements at WPI grow to be more rigorous and extensive. His passion for the university and its students was already clear, reflected in his statement that, “Nowhere, however, have I seen students work as hard as you do at WPI.”

Shaping Change

In a March 1966 Tech News article, he said that grades should not penalize students, but should encourage them to do better. He felt that the pressure on students to obtain the necessary grades detracted from a scholastic approach to college. He felt the ultimate answer to alleviate this pressure was to implement a pass or fail system but felt that would be unfeasible at WPI.  And it was, at the time, but he would work with countless others to change that.

In 1968, WPI made a significant shift in direction, accepting undergraduate women to the institute for the first time. This would forever change the face of the campus, its classes, and its graduates. On the heels of this evolution, in the summer of 1970, the Two Towers Model was approved by the faculty of the institute, formally instating the WPI Plan, bringing into being the project-based educational model for which WPI is known and lauded worldwide.

“He advocated for academic advisors adopting a totally different role. He felt advising was “haphazard” at the time and needed to change significantly to support the new WPI Plan. ”

Van A himself continued to excel in his work, to the point of national recognition. He appeared in the 1970 edition of Outstanding Educators of America based on his exceptional service, achievements, and leadership in education. And, as the school’s transformation to the WPI Plan began, he continued to engage, as he always had and always would, with students. In an article welcoming new students to campus for the fall of 1970, he emphasized, “A continuing dialogue between students and faculty, working together as colleagues, is, after all, what college is really all about.”

In early 1971, he was appointed dean of academic advising.  A March 1971 article in Tech News stated his goal was to reshape the WPI curriculum requirements, reorient the role of advising, and, most important, to reform general attitudes toward education at WPI. He advocated for academic advisors adopting a totally different role. He felt advising was “haphazard” at the time and needed to change significantly to support the new WPI Plan. 

The Role of Advising

Van A advocated that advisors would need to move away from praising or chastising a student based on their GPA and work to identify and mitigate the challenges faced by their advisees. The goal was to have students and their advisors work as a team to ensure the student was able to successfully complete their work at WPI. The ideal advisor would have knowledge of all the facilities and opportunities WPI could offer a student and quickly put the student in touch with those people and resources that could help them. And the ideal advisor would be more than a professor, it would be a friend the student could come to, just to talk, whether about a problem or about something else. This ideal mold for advising came from Van A himself, as evidenced by so many of the students who benefited from his support and encouragement.

“During his tenure at WPI he became best known and highly regarded as a superb teacher whose concern for students went far beyond the mere offering of extra help. ”

As Dean of Scheduling, he spent the next few years working to rebuild the course registration program at WPI from the ground up. Things went more smoothly each year, but even so he regularly apologized for the challenges students faced through the add/drop process while registering for the courses they needed, acknowledging it should be better and promising to make it so. In time, the process ran like a well-tuned engine, thanks in large part to Van A’s amazing ability to remember each student’s schedule and the availability of that term’s courses with encyclopedic skill.

In addition to teaching mathematics courses, both at the undergraduate and honors level, his ongoing work to tune the WPI Plan, and his laser-like focus on continually improving the advising and scheduling process, he enjoyed, and was enjoyed by, the students of WPI. He was nominated for Junior Prom King in 1985 and was well-known for his wildly popular bread-baking Intercession courses over the years, with which he peppered delicious recipes with anecdotes from his life experiences.

During his tenure at WPI he became best known and highly regarded as a superb teacher whose concern for students went far beyond the mere offering of extra help. He particularly enjoyed teaching freshmen, and once remarked that “working with students has kept me from thinking old.” By his retirement in 1989, after 28 years at WPI, he had become more or less accustomed to having himself described as “legendary.”

Active in Retirement

But even after retirement, Van A never stopped doing what he loved. In 1989, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, close to one of his daughters.  There he volunteered for 15 years as registrar for the College for Seniors at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. He coached a team of students who went on to win the Western North Carolina MATHCOUNTS championship.  He also spent time teaching, tutoring, and nurturing often disadvantaged students in local schools. He retained his passion for teaching and continued to take a personal interest in his students, each and every one.

He met Bill Brittain, a children’s book author, at the College of Seniors, and they became friends. Two of Mr. Brittain’s young adult books, The Wizards and the Monster, and The Mystery of the Several Sevens, featured a substitute math teacher named Mr. Merlin, modeled after Van A, who brought both math and magic to his middle school students.  Van A’s life touched so many that, when he passed away in 2010, the loss reverberated throughout the WPI community, and beyond.

(Note: the writing of Bill Britain was mentioned in the article “The Wizard of Asheville”, written by Roger N. Perry Jr. ’45, in the Spring 1996 WPI Journal.)

A Personal Debt

I owe a debt of gratitude to van A, as well. I came to WPI in the fall of 1981, grateful and astonished to have been accepted at my first-choice school. I’m sure he was one in a long line of WPI leaders who provided the same stentorian pronouncement to freshman classes (including mine), warning us to look to our left and look to our right, as one of the three of us would not graduate. At the time, I found that inspirational. Surely, I was destined to succeed here.

But my difficulties started early on when I discovered my Achilles heel: calculus and advanced mathematics. After three years at WPI, I found the challenges of continuing the path to an electrical engineering degree had become insurmountable. What else could I do? One thing I knew; I loved to write. Technical writing seemed a logical answer, but how to forge ahead with no formal program at WPI?

“His advice, encouragement, and expertise gave me the fortitude to carry on when all the doors to opportunity seemed closed. ”

Daunted but determined, I was astonished by Van A’s commitment to my success. I’m one of generations of students who have perennially wondered where he found the time for the one-on-one attention he lavished on us. His unique combination of cheerleading and ruthless compassion was exactly what I needed. I know his kind and constant interaction with many students taught them much and encouraged them to excel, but how many students like me did he work with to pave an avenue for success at WPI? I’m sure the number may be in the hundreds, or, more likely, in the thousands.

His advice, encouragement, and expertise gave me the fortitude to carry on when all the doors to opportunity seemed closed. Arming me, as he had so many others, with that unique blend of confidence and courage, he worked with me and my academic advisor, Van Bluemel, to craft a degree in Interdisciplinary Technical Writing that WPI later adopted as a formal major. It continues to this day as the Professional Writing program, designed with flexibility so students can tailor a path toward their own individual career aspirations and goals.

I have enjoyed my successful career as a technical writer for 35 years now and will continue to do so until I retire. And it is all thanks to the inspiration, persistence, and tireless advocacy of John Van Alstyne. When he stood at my commencement in 1987, the rafters in Harrington Auditorium shook from the standing ovation he received, and my cheers were surely among the loudest.

Honoring van A

My gratitude for him since then has only increased, so I was delighted, but not surprised, to hear of the plan to honor his name and likeness on campus so current and future students can learn of his legacy. Together we can create a space and visual remembrance where future generations of students can meet the advisors and mentors who will steer their lives in positive directions—just as van A did for us.

Reflecting on his original desire to become an architect, Van A found that “nothing I might have created could have matched the joy I have experienced in seeing the light shine in my students’ eyes when they gain understanding.” But in the end, he was a polymath, a master of many things: a mathemagician, an advisor, a counselor, a facilitator, and, in many ways, an architect. He worked to architect the WPI Plan, to redesign WPIs complex but necessary scheduling system, and to craft a way forward for so many of WPI’s students. All architects labor to create their master works, albeit with joy. I surmise that the graduates of WPI are his magnum opus. John Van Alstyne was our architect, and we are his cathedral.

NOTE: Since this article was written, the campaign to name the academic advising suite in the new academic building in memory of van A has surpassed the goal of $500,000. We thank the 325+ donors who made this possible. You can still support this fundraising campaign or choose to donate to the Dean John P. van Alstyne Memorial Scholarship, which provides financial assistance to offset any additional costs to a student or students as they complete an off-campus project. If you would like more information, please contact Bri Ross, director of alumni and student philanthropy, at

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