To many, Robert Coleman was more than an ingenious mathematician — he was an adventurer, an inspiration and a fighter.
After battling multiple sclerosis for nearly three decades, the esteemed UC Berkeley mathematics professor died of a heart attack March 24. He was 59.
Coleman, born Nov. 22, 1954, began his career at UC Berkeley in 1983, four years before he received the MacArthur Fellowship for his research in mathematics. His research dealt primarily with number theory, p-adic analysis and arithmetic geometry.
Coleman’s approach to mathematics was to rethink subjects from the ground up, taking things apart and putting them back together in a way that led to new insights, described Kenneth Ribet, campus mathematics professor and Coleman’s friend.
“Coleman had the imagination … and the courage to work on crucial ideas that his energy and his vision made possible,” said Barry Mazur, mathematics professor at Harvard University and one of Coleman’s close colleagues, in a written tribute. “He was unafraid to dream the great dreams of his subject.”
Coleman meant a lot of things to different people — but to all, he was gregarious, personable and fearless.
“He was just such a fun person,” said Tessa Drake-Coleman, his wife. “In all of the things that were so unfair about what was happening to him, like his terrible illness, he lived a full life.”
Drake-Coleman recalled how when the two were at lunch on Valentine’s Day one year, Coleman ordered frog legs and afterward asked his wife if he could still kiss her. Such was the sunny and playful charisma those in Coleman’s life cherished.
Along with a twisted sense of humor, Coleman had a positivity about him that was magnetic. Even after he learned 29 years ago that he had MS, Coleman maintained his optimism — he took his disability in stride.
One of the first things Coleman received after his diagnosis was a racing wheelchair — a Cobra. He had a life force that, like his Cobra, propelled him forward.
When invited to international conferences in cities where wheeling across the narrow curbs was a constant challenge, Coleman still navigated his way through the cities with his service dog by his side, remembered Matt Baker, one of his former graduate students.
As someone who never let MS stand in his way, Coleman pressured local governments to install accommodations for those with disabilities.
Above all, Coleman was passionate about being a professor. While it would have been easier for Coleman to hold his classes online, he refused — he liked seeing his students and working one-on-one with them.
The day before he passed, Coleman and his wife went to Tilden Park, and he spent the day doing what he loved: math.
He is survived by Drake-Coleman, his sister Rosalind, brother Mark, nephew Jeffrey and niece Elise. There will be a memorial service for Coleman on May 31 at the Bancroft Hotel from 2 to 4 p.m.