E. Graham Evans (1942–2021)

We are deeply saddened to tell the community about the passing of E. Graham Evans on Saturday, March 20th, at the age of 78.

Below are notes we received from David Eisenbud and Phillip Griffith.


The following is a note we received from David Eisenbud:

“I was deeply sad to hear of Graham Evans’ death on March 20th, and I have been thinking about him. I want to share some memories:

Graham was one of my closest friends in grad school. He and Kaye were already married in graduate school — I think they had been childhood sweethearts — and I remember being very impressed by their snug little apartment.

Graham was a student of Kaplansky and I also followed all of Kap’s marvelous lectures. We both developed a fascination with free resolutions from this exposure. Graham also wrote the notes for Richard Swan’s course in K-theory — I enjoyed learning the basics from these notes somewhat later.

Graham took a Postdoc at MIT and I followed to Brandeis, nearby. There we continued our friendship and collaborated on basic elements (arising from Swan’s work) and on set-theoretic complete intersections — the latter resulting in the paper for which (I believe) I was given tenure at Brandeis.

Graham went on to a career at UIUC, while I stayed at Brandeis, but we continued many interactions and parallels. For example, Graham’s undergraduate student Mike Stillman wrote an early program to compute syzygies, while Buchsbaum and I employed an undergraduate, Ray Zibman, for the same purpose (none of us knew about Groebner bases, so the programs were only heuristic; Schreyer’s algorithm and the work of Bayer and Stillman on Macaulay lay, unsuspected, in the future.) Graham and I both spent the year 1975-76 at the I.H.E.S, outside of Paris, supported by Sloan Fellowships. Graham was already obsessed with (but making no progress on) the “Syzygy Problem”–the conjecture that a non-free n-th syzygy of finite projective dimension must have rank at least n. It took a long time, but his persistence paid off: he and his Urbana colleague Phillip Griffith published their proof in the Annals of Math in 1981. Their London Math Society book, published a few years later has a nice exposition of the whole area. The paper continues to be influential: it already has 65 citations, 11 new ones in papers appearing in the last 5 years alone.

At Urbana Graham and Kaye continued to nurture many students, one of whom, Hara Charalambous, came to me as a Postdoc and is now Chair of mathematics in Thessaloniki. In addition to his PhD students, whom you can find at the math genealogy site, there was a succession of undergraduates who enjoyed the welcoming warmth of that household, including Mike Stillman and, much more recently, Emily Riehl. I believe that Kaye, an accomplished seamstress, even sewed wedding dresses for some of them! Graham was an excellent and enthusiastic cook—for example he made the first and only “Christmas Goose” that I ever tasted. He was active in teaching non-mathematicians at Urbana, too: he once told me about a course he gave regularly, in which, on the first day he would say: “Don’t be afraid! Now reach out and touch the computer.” I can hear him saying it… Soon after Graham retired from UIUC, he developed Parkinson’s disease, and Kaye also suffered a series of medical troubles. Fortunately they had the support of Carl, one of their two sons, who remained in Urbana, involved with the University. For quite a while, Graham and Kaye made frequent pilgrimages to the West coast where their other child, Michael, is a video game developer. They would often stop by in Berkeley on these trips, so we could renew our friendship. Kaye died about a year ago. I had hoped to visit in Urbana once more, too — it might have happened, but for the pandemic.”


Also, a message from Phillip Griffith:

“Graham was delivered into the world on September 8, 1942 – not by his father an obstetrician/gynecologist by trade. His father saved that delivery for Kay Esser – Graham’s wife to be. Serendipity at work!

Graham graduated from Aurora High School (Illinois) in 1960 – the year his High School Debate Team won the National Championship.

After graduating Dartmouth in 1964 Graham began his graduate studies at University of Chicago. It was at this time that Graham, David Eisenbud and I began exchanging ideas – at afternoon tea.

Graham received his Ph.D. degree under the direction of Irving Kaplansky in 1969. For many years he wore his cap and gown to teach on Hilbert’s Birthday.

After a year at UCLA, Graham began a two-year position as post doc at MIT. And it is here where I “blew it” in my retirement speech for Graham – stating, “Graham received a Benjamin Moore Postdoctoral Fellowship” instead of C.L.E. Moore Fellowship. The next day Graham informed me, “Phil, Benjamin Moore refers to paint.” Graham and David Eisenbud produced 5 excellent articles during this period.

After taking a position at Illinois, Graham introduced me to a problem he and Winfried Bruns referred to as “The Syzygy Problem”, a question concerning minimal ranks of syzygy modules of finite projective dimension. After a few years making little or no progress, our ideas meshed to solve the problem in Spring 1980. The mix: a crude version of what is now known to be the Improved New Intersection Theorem that produced the desired grade inequality of order ideals of minimal generators. Our paper was published in Annals of Mathematics (1981).

In 1985 Graham and I published a monograph, SYZYGIES (LMS Lecture Notes 106) that discussed matters in more depth. In particular, the connection to the Improved New Intersection Theorem was made more precise.

In 2000 and 2001 Graham received two prestigious U of I mentoring awards, and was featured in video with undergraduate Chris Francisco (now Oklahoma State U) at halftime of a U of I basketball game.

In early 2003 Graham announced he would retire in Spring 2004. I asked a librarian from the Math Library to locate another copy of our monograph. I planned to have a special cover designed for presentation to Graham at the Department Retirement celebration. With the help of BookFinders.com the librarian provided a phone number for a bookstore in Ohio. When I called, they had only one copy left – and that one was sold. I found a bookstore in Nevada that listed their only copy at $296. (Had SYZYGIES found its way into rare books?) I tried their “used books” site and found the same copy. With additional help I found a copy through Amazon with a price tag of $512. This exercise gave new meaning to “Appreciation of Theorems.” The original price had been $35. My quest was never realized – except in story form. Eventually our monograph was reprinted – all mistakes in tack – and the price dropped.

Chef Graham’s culinary excellence was well known. Once at a dinner party he announced, “the chocolate souffle collapsed!” All was eaten!

One lasting memory will never fade. And that is Kay and Graham and Judy and I at a famous restaurant in Napa Valley toasting to what our collaboration had brought.

Good journey my friend.”

One thought on “E. Graham Evans (1942–2021)”

  1. It’s hard to overstate how much I have benefited from the generosity of E Graham Evans Jr, who went out of his way time and time again to create special opportunities for me as a teenager growing up in central Illinois.

    We first met on a college visit sometime in 2001, during which I met with him in his office in his capacity as Director of Undergraduate Studies. At that point I had fond memories of UIUC from the Illinois State Math Contests, but had no real connection with the university. Much to my surprise, he stayed in touch and offered to use some department funding earmarked for student travel to send me to the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in my senior year of high school.

    More incredibly, he invited me to participate as some sort of unofficial satellite to an REU program taking place at UIUC in the summer of 2002, the summer before I left for college. I was paid a stipend, which meant I didn’t have to work another summer job. Instead I spent my days haunting empty classrooms at Illinois State University and then drove down to Urbana-Champaign once a week from Bloomington-Normal to meet with Graham.

    Graham suggested we work on a special case of a Cayley–Bacharach conjecture, due to Eisenbud, Green, and Harris, which he distilled to an explicit problem that could be solved by induction: we prove that the maximal number of vertices of an n-dimensional hypercube that a polynomial of degree k can vanish at without vanishing at them all is 2^n – 2^{n-k}. We co-wrote and published a six page paper with that result and some mild generalizations, on which he insisted on listing me as the first author, much to my later embarrassment when I learned about the convention to default to alphabetical order.

    Midway through the summer, I also started working with John P D’Angelo who gave me a combinatorial problem about sources and sinks in some labelled lattice diagram associated polynomials that figured in some way in another joint paper “A Sharp Bound for the Degree of Proper Monomial Mappings Between Balls” with Šimon Kos. I’m sure behind the scenes Graham was the one who recruited John as a co-mentor. At the end of the summer, Graham also arranged for me to give a talk at UIUC about my Intel Science Talent Search research project, and recruited people to actually show up, which was a particular thrill.

    I have a lot of pleasant memories from that summer, including a backyard barbecue at Graham and Kay’s house, where I was introduced to the pleasures of grilled portabella mushrooms. Graham and Kay were famous for their hospitality and hosted many international students over the years, including Winfried Bruns’ daughter Julia. Somehow I ended up the beneficiary of a reciprocal exchange, and spent the summer of 2003 living with the Bruns in Osnabrück in a futile attempt to learn to speak fluent german.

    We stayed in touch in the following years. I relied on Graham particularly as a letter writer for my graduate school and fellowship applications, since his was the only REU I participated in. I remembered him being surprised that I wanted to use him as a letter writer, but it’s rare, when you’re an undergraduate, to have a faculty member get to know you so well, so I’m sure I made the right choice.

    A final instance of his generosity: when Graham retired, he gave me his entire math library, which was an incredible bounty to receive as a PhD student. I gave a few books away but kept most of them, and they still form a substantial part of my collection.

    I’m very grateful that Graham and I were able to stay in touch over the past almost 20 years. Graham and Kay became friends with my parents, and would come up to Bloomington-Normal for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival every summer. I was able to see him a handful of times. Even as an emeritus faculty member, he’d come into the department whenever I was in town to give a talk.

    In summary, I was profoundly lucky to have been adopted by such a wonderful mentor and role model. When I dreamt of what it might like to be a tenured faculty member, I imagined a house like Graham and Kay’s, with a beautiful garden within walking distance of campus, and filled with interesting visitors and friends. I will really miss him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *