Hubert Walczak didn't just have a mind for math. He had a gift for making it interesting.
A mathematics professor at the University of St. Thomas for 33 years, Walczak used weather reports, music or everyday statistics to make numbers come alive.
"Mathematics is not a subject you'd think someone could make exciting, but he did," said Tom Fleming, a renowned biostatistician and professor at the University of Washington, and one of Walczak's most accomplished students.
"He was absolutely extraordinary. He changed my life."
Walczak, of St. Paul, died Jan. 31, several years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He was 84.
The great-great-grandson of Polish immigrants, Walczak grew up a devout Catholic in South St. Paul and was the first in his family to go to college.
During summers, he'd work at the Swift and Co. meat packing plant, and earned enough to pay for an entire year's tuition plus room and board.
He loved classical music as much as he did the patterns and structures of mathematics.
He met his future wife, Karin, on a date to hear a Beethoven piano concerto. The couple bought a piano before they had children and it remained a centerpiece of their home life.
"They weren't playing 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' to us," said his firstborn, Dan Walczak. "They were playing Bach, Tchaikovsky and Mozart."
All three children picked up his knack for numbers. Dan, who also took classes from his father, majored in math at St. Thomas and went on to graduate school in math and statistics at Iowa State.
Walczak's other son, David, is an actuary; daughter Julia double-majored in math and economics.
"Dad's math gene propagated down to all of us," Dan said.
Walczak had a warm smile and low-key manner, but he loved a good joke. He was particularly fond of Laurel and Hardy, and his children can identify every one of the duo's slapstick movies within the first few seconds.
Along with his wife, Karin, who worked in St. Thomas' O'Shaughnessy Library for two decades, he jogged enough miles to qualify for St. Thomas' 20,000 mile club.
The years of mental decline took a toll on the family, including Walczak's late-in-life partner, Zuyi Gu, whom he met after Karin died in 2001.
"He's trying to answer questions for neurological assessment and he can't draw the hands of a clock," said his oldest son. "That was heartbreaking."
Walczak retired from St. Thomas in 1996 after being honored twice for his outstanding work as a teacher and mentor.
Fleming, the former student whose work involving the transmission, treatment and prevention of HIV is considered a scientific breakthrough, said no other teacher has come close to Walczak.
"I took seven classes a quarter with him," Fleming said. "I followed him around like a puppy."
As a teacher, Fleming said he tries to emulate Walczak's ability to be organized, and break down difficult concepts into simple parts that are easier to understand.
Recently, Fleming led an effort with the Walczak children to establish an endowed scholarship at St. Thomas in their parents' name to benefit seniors majoring in actuarial science or mathematics.
Services will be held Thursday, Feb. 8, at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Eagan.