Arūnas Liulevičius, mathematician and beloved UChicago teacher, 1934-2018

For the nearly four decades that Prof. Arūnas Leonardas Liulevičius taught mathematics to undergraduates at the University of Chicago, he was regularly approached by former students telling him he had inspired them to pursue majors or careers in the field after taking his classes.

Liulevičius, PhD’60, who died Dec. 21 at age 84, is remembered as a distinguished teacher who had a lasting impact on the lives of his students.

“The thing about teaching undergraduate math is that people who are talented at explaining mathematics, but don’t also care about students, will not be successful,” said Robert Fefferman, the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor of Mathematics and Liulevičius’ colleague for more than 30 years. “You must decide it is important to you, to be dedicated, to be available, and that is what Arūnas was.”

Liulevičius joined the University faculty in 1963 as a specialist in the burgeoning field of algebraic topology, a branch of mathematics that uses algebra to describe topological structures—objects as they are twisted or deformed. His first work, overseen by his adviser, eminent mathematician Saunders MacLane, solved a variant of a problem whose solution was considered one of the starting points of modern algebraic topology.

Liulevičius wrote two sets of lecture notes on the subject, Characteristic Classes and Cobordism and On Characteristic Classes, which colleagues noted for their “crystal clarity” and quirky, understated humor. Its reviewer wrote: “These lecture notes are unusual in combining rigour and precision with a delightfully informal style…[the reader] will finish the notes feeling extremely friendly to the author.”

Liulevičius also remains one of only a handful of professors ever to twice win the University’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

“To say he was a distinguished teacher is a tremendous understatement,” Fefferman said. Students remembered his consideration, his generous office hours and “ever-ready” box of Le Petit Ecolier dark chocolate cookies.

Born Nov. 6, 1934 in Sakiai, Lithuania, Liulevičius fled the country with his family as World War II raged; they stayed in Displaced Person camps until emigrating to the U.S. in 1949. Liulevičius was active in the Lithuanian-American community in Chicago, especially as Lithuania strove to regain its independence. After the 1991 Soviet crackdown in Vilnius that resulted in the deaths of unarmed protestors, he co-edited a book called The Gift of Vilnius: A Photographic Document in Defense of Freedom to spread awareness.

Even after retirement, Liulevičius continued to work with and organize the Young Scholars Program, which brings high school students to the University for summer camps in mathematics.

“He loved teaching, and he loved students,” said J. Peter May, professor of mathematics and fellow algebraic topologist who joined the UChicago faculty four years after Liulevičius. “He had an infectious enthusiasm for mathematics; moreover, he was unfailingly kind and friendly to everyone. He made me feel at home here from day one, and I'll always be grateful.”

Liulevičius is survived by his wife, Ausrele Skirmuntas; sons Vejas and Gytis; grandchildren Paul, Helen and Laima; sister Saule Palubinskas and her family, and the family of his late sister, Aukse Kaufmann.