Craig Jensen, a professor of mathematics at St. Michael’s College who strove to help students understand challenging concepts in engaging ways, and built a quirky, friendly atmosphere into his classrooms, died on Monday, March 13, 2017. He was 47 years old.
The Jensen family moved to Shelburne in 2015 after their home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Craig Jensen’s wife, Elizabeth, a psychiatrist had accepted a job at the University of Vermont and Craig soon accepted position at St. Michael’s.
“From the very beginning he was an unexpected asset,” said Jo Ellis-Monaghan, chair of the mathematics department. “The level of his expertise showed immediately in his teaching and programmatic development.”
Although Jensen was not at St. Michael’s for long, his vibrant optimism and energy around mathematics’ stereotype as a dry and difficult subject made an impression on math and non-math students alike.
“He was never not smiling,” said Meghan Smith, ’19, who was in Jensen’s Calculus 1 class in the fall of 2015. “What I remember most about his class was that he would always bring in some sort of fun element to help us understand the material, like a cartoon for example. He also really tried to get us out in the field to apply what we were learning, which was very interactive,” Smith said.
Jensen worked to connect students’ other studies to all of his classes. For example, he redesigned the curriculum of the Elements of Calculus course for biology and business students to make it Microsoft Excel based, as those students will need to use the software throughout their academic and professional careers. “He would take van loads of kids in his bio-calculus class [out into the field] because he felt like they really needed to see how the math mattered in the context of their own first loves,” Ellis-Monaghan said.
“Math should be presented as being fun, and applicable to a wide variety of disciplines,” Jensen wrote in his biography in the St. Michael’s faculty directory. He extended this goal to students outside of his classroom as well with his weekly Math & Cookies event, in which he invited all students to get together each Thursday to play games and snack while practicing mathematics.
“He would haul this coffee maker up to the Farrell Room every Thursday and he thought highly enough of his students that he bought really high-end, Tate’s cookies for it,” Ellis-Monaghan recalled with a smile.
A California native, Jensen lived in many different parts of the United States, moving from California to Pennsylvania and New Mexico throughout elementary school, then attended high school in Utah. Math was his forte from the start. He graduated high school as a Sterling Math Scholar, which recognizes high school seniors in the State of Utah for their pursuit of excellence in scholarship, leadership and citizenship, according to the award’s website.
Jensen remained in Utah for his undergraduate education, studying mathematics and philosophy at the University of Utah. He continued pursuing his love for math and exploration of the USA at the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University, receiving his master’s and Ph.D. in mathematics.
After marrying on May 25, 2002, the Jensens moved to Louisiana where he became a tenured professor of mathematics and director of the undergraduate program at New Orleans University. Together they had three daughters Eva, 11, Liberty, 6 and Genevieve, 3. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, the Jensens were homeless for about 16 months, living with relatives and friends, until Elizabeth was offered the job at UVM.
“I was very fortunate to get the position [at St. Michael’s] when I did,” Jensen told The Defender in Oct. 2015.
“I think the fact that he wanted to be called Craig speaks to who he was as a person. He wanted his students to feel comfortable around him, to ask questions whenever they needed help,” said Ashling O’Leary, a junior mathematics major, in an email while studying abroad in Florence, Italy.
“Craig genuinely loved math–it was fun to him–and his specialty was in game theory, among other subjects. He was humble about his brilliance,” said Rebecca Rouleau, ’18. “He was always trying to bring everyone together to play
a game of cards, especially Hearts, which was his favorite,” said Rouleau.
“I’m sad we won’t get to learn from him,” said Mariah Boudereau, ’19.
Jensen was not only a respected colleague and professor, but also a devoted father to his daughters, according to his wife, colleagues and students. On his personal website, Jensen’s wrote that his favorite thing to do for fun was to hang out with his wife Elizabeth and their three daughters, while his least favorite was to clean the refrigerator.
“He was a big time dad,” Ellis-Monaghan said. “He spent a lot of time with his kids. He called Genevieve ‘Jellybean,’ and he had pictures of their stuff slathered all over his office.”
“He like to build things with them. He liked playing with magnet blocks with Genevieve,” Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth attended a memorial prayer service for her husband in the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel on March 28, accompanied by Genevieve and her mother-in-law Joanne Jensen. Genevieve appears to take after her father’s captivating energy, innocently chatting with her mother, grandmother and a Barbie doll in the front row of the chapel as Jensen’s colleagues and students filed in for the service.
“He liked to play video games. He liked decaf coffee black. He roasted and ground his own coffee,” added Elizabeth.
“He was really interesting because he had all of these weird hobbies. He was kind of compulsive about coffee, he liked really high-end coffee. He was a huge Tanith Lee fan and even had original artwork from her novels up in his office. He was a serious gamer, he used to run a gaming club at his home on Fridays,” Ellis-Monaghan said.
Tanith Lee was not the only art in his office. “His office was more distinctive in the Math Department hallway because it had a Zombie poster on it, and I believe it said something along the lines of ‘Warning, exams are closer than they appear,’” Boudreau said.
Among other things, Jensen will be remembered for his infectious laugh, attentiveness to campus and family and passion for math and other more quirky hobbies.
“He just really fit in,” Ellis-Monaghan said. “He was what you hope for when you bring somebody into the St. Mike’s community: somebody kind, somebody engaged with students, somebody very professional and hard-working—and fun.”