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A Legacy for Future Generations of Math Undergraduates

Mathematician Terry McKee and his wife, Shirley, have created a Named Endowed Fund at the AMS, the Terry A. McKee Fund for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics at the AMS. The fund was established through a lifetime gift, which will be augmented by a generous future bequest. Terry and Shirley spoke with us about their gift and how it will support future generations of mathematics undergraduates.

Learn more about Named Endowed Funds and Charitable Estate Planning.


QTell us about the Terry A. McKee Fund for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics.

My wife, Shirley, and I recently established the Terry A. McKee Fund for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics (TAM Fund), an endowed fund at the American Mathematical Society (AMS) that will support research opportunities for future generations of undergraduates. While we are living, what we contribute to the AMS is directed to this fund, and a generous bequest will be made from our estate. The TAM fund will provide financially to the underpinnings of undergraduate mathematics research – timely introductions to the community of active mathematicians (including other undergraduates), mentorships, and opportunities for speaking and publishing.

Q What was your own experience of mathematics research as an undergraduate? How has it contributed to your vision for the TAM Fund?

Picture of students at poster session
Undergraduates presenting their work at the 2020 JMM in Denver, CO
Photo credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography

Shirley and I met in the summer of 1967 at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and went on to graduate in our respective hometown schools – she at Northwest Missouri State College (now University), Maryville, and I at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. We were in Oklahoma on a summer fellowship sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Shirley studied algebra (abelian group theory) with three other undergraduates, and I was in the mathematical logic group. There was also a group interested in computer science – twelve of us altogether, from ten different undergraduate schools. We all shared meals at a reserved table in our dorm cafeteria.

Being able to socialize easily with a group of my peers that summer was in marked contrast with an NSF program I had attended the previous summer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There, a UW student and I were given access to a downstairs room to teach ourselves a bit of combinatorial geometry, and we spent a couple of hours each week with Professor Donald Crowe and his office blackboard. This led to my finding a counterexample to a published conjecture and, thereby, to a joint paper with Crowe.1

University summer programs such as these are part of our vision of what the TAM Fund might support, in whole or in part, whether by direct stipends to students or assisting with development and administration of established, developing, or as yet unidentified opportunities for undergraduates interested in mathematics research. Where are such programs today? Do they have a track record and for how long might they be capable of supporting, maintaining, and expanding what we can offer? Ignoring the "who, what, when, where, why" and compiling neither database nor spreadsheet, a workable agreement grew out of our personal differences and our shared experiences.


Q Tell us about your mathematical journey and career.

Terry: I was a first-generation college graduate. I "showed potential" at Lincoln Northeast High School and some of my teachers went beyond praise. One of them introduced me to Professor Donald Miller, a university mathematics faculty member. Miller in turn helped me during my final year of high school by arranging for me to unofficially participate in a University of Nebraska undergraduate mathematics seminar. These evening seminars had fewer than ten students, and I was allowed to contribute a "research talk." It was on mathematical knot theory, probably limited to my thinking out loud about the distribution of "over" and "under" crossings in diagrams that were likely from a book like James R. Newman's 1956 The World of Mathematics.

As a high school senior, I was encouraged by my chemistry teacher to enter The Westinghouse (now Regeneron) Science Talent Search. With his assistance on the application, my project was made suitable for review by the distinguished panel of judges. And without any help on actual content, I was named a Nebraska (not a national) semifinalist.2 The essay component of my entry presented what I remember to be counterexamples I had discovered to natural analogs of the 2-dimensional polygonal Four Color Conjecture for higher-dimensional polyhedra.

Towards the end of my first year at Nebraska, my honors calculus teacher encouraged me to apply for summer funding for some non-classroom activities. While the award did not entail any real undergraduate research, it allowed me to do things that were not in the college catalog. I was mostly encouraged to learn programming from a FORTRAN workbook kept in the graduate students' office. This let me avoid prerequisite electrical engineering courses and lean on the university's brand-new IBM 360 computer while my punchcards ran. I experimented with some number-theoretic concepts (mostly gaps between prime numbers), a new interest that reflected the time that I spent reading Mathematical Reviews and such in the campus library.


Our goal is to help undergraduates gain research experience through mentorships, stipends, and more.

My senior year in college was busy, in preparation for both marriage and graduate school. I knew I would be pursuing mathematical logic, and I was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to my having co-authored the paper on Sylvester's problem that was then in press, I wrote two "senior theses." (I used one as a silly excuse to avoid a mathematics competition, the kind that tests basic and esoteric knowledge of mathematics and problem-solving.) The other led to a solo paper3 that was accepted for publication but never appeared. Neither I (nor anyone who saw the paper) knew that I wasn't the first, until shortly after Shirley and I moved to Madison, when I discovered the same result, in Russian, in the Wisconsin mathematics library.


Picture of people reviewing paperwork
Undergraduate travel grants supported by the TAM Fund will help give students the opportunity to engage with their peers and with the broader mathematics community at meetings such as the JMM.
Photo credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography
I received my Ph.D. in 1974 4, at which time the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had arguably the best mathematical logic doctoral program anywhere. I then spent several years becoming an "applied logician," blending logic with combinatorial aspects of various topics. I increasingly tended toward graph theory and, in turn, I then applied graph theory to real-world matters. My best-known result was an unexpected, 1984 version of the classic 1736 characterization of eulerian graphs.5 My characterization – that every edge must be in an odd number of cycles – was a clear example of elegant graph theory, while the actual paper was unmistakably written by a logician.


Degree in hand, and after a brief stint in Illinois, I joined the faculty of Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, in 1976. Our daughter, Marcy, was three. My research interests continued to evolve, and in 1999 I coauthored a monograph 6 on what I'm best known for doing – chordal graph theory. It is my most-cited work.

Shirley: I loved solving problems and writing proofs, but I wasn't fit for a lifetime of research and teaching; my undergraduate degree is in education. In addition to being a teacher, I've been a biochemistry lab technician, a software engineer, and a web designer. My hobbies are more broad-ranging: I've read Celtic folktales in the Middle Welsh language and learned calligraphy and lectio divina ("divine reading") from a monk.

Q How have you personally been involved in encouraging undergraduates to engage in research?

In addition to classroom and scholarly activities, I gave general lectures at events sponsored by the WSU undergraduate Math Club over the years. I also spoke at least a dozen times at Dayton Honors Seminars (for high school students), Greater Miami Valley Mathematics Circles, and several other undergraduate events in and near Ohio. These talks typically involved applicable real-world polyhedral models or architectural design. In 2001 I became the Associate Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, and my free time became rarer. After my formal retirement in 2006, I continued a small amount of undergraduate research mentorship, mainly limited to occasional short bursts with students from Engineering and other programs.

Although these collaborative projects were important, my personal vision was to promote undergraduate research in mathematics. To this end, nearly ten years ago I began a multi-year funding of undergraduate research through the WSU Mathematics and Statistics Department in coordination with the University Foundation. Pandemic restrictions on staff and space have made it difficult to reach potential applicants and provide mentoring.

Q Looking back, who were the people who were instrumental in helping you evolve as a young mathematician?

Earlier, when I described my earliest research attempts, I said they were largely "wishful thinking" – by which I meant that I was naive to think that what I was doing would bear the rigors of peer review, let alone inspire others: In high school, I formulated theories, I played with problems, and I read about the history of mathematics. I was beginning to "think like a mathematician." With timely interventions, I found my way into the general mathematics community. I am grateful to high school teachers who valued my creativity, even if it were in the context of mathematics. To one, I owe my thanks for introducing me to Donald Miller at the University of Nebraska. He, in turn, gave me the chance to speak to mathematics undergraduates. To my high school chemistry teacher, I am grateful that he encouraged me to enter a mathematics project in the Science Talent Search. Finally, I am indebted to Donald Crowe, at the University of Wisconsin, who added shape and purpose to my writing, leading to my first peer-reviewed co-publication. It was after this Wisconsin undergraduate summer program that, in my junior year, I presented my results at what I was told was the first University of Nebraska "faculty colloquium" by an undergraduate.

QHow did the 2020 pandemic affect your plans for the future?

The pandemic galloped into our lives. Because of our age, Shirley and I are in a vulnerable group of citizens. The good news is that we were among the first to be eligible for immunization. And we pressed forward because in 2020 it was becoming evident to us that we would have to do some serious wishful thinking to accomplish goals.

Wishful thinking, followed by action, has consequences. From my experience at Wright State –both in the mathematics and statistics department, and later as the associate dean of my college – I am fully aware of the planning and preparation goes into the process of building and maintaining faculties, programs, and facilities. It comes with limits from university regulations, state laws, professional standards, and accrediting agencies. There are matters of documentation, reviews, meetings, and appeals, with more unknowns popping up with each round. I'm glad I was ignorant of all this when I graduated and left home – with a wife I barely knew – to attend graduate school. More recently, I discovered retirement is also beset with planning and preparation. I met a steady flow of professionals ready to assist me in making decisions about healthcare, insurance, downsizing, and keeping active. Brochures were distributed, sometimes in binders. Checklists were delivered by hand. Some things could I could delay or ignore, but June 30, 2006 was a red-letter day: My retirement was official.

Picture of 3 undergraduate women smiling
Helping undergraduates connect with their peers provides valuable opportunities to learn and builds community.
Photo credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography

One more round was to follow. Shirley calls it "preparing for what happens if we are abducted by aliens." [There is a longstanding tradition of UFOs and extra-terrestrial abductions in the Dayton area.] Much of her time in the latter part of 2019 and much of 2020 was spent reviewing our wills, powers of attorney, and joint revocable living trust agreement. The trust review took longer than initially expected because of delay tactics – and the eventual abandonment – of our lawyer. In consultation with our financial advisor and accountant, Shirley followed her persistent feeling that the trust needed to be re-written, and found another lawyer willing to do it.

  • "It's not as if it's totally wrong," she told me, "We're still be providing for family first. We just need to be sure that our corporate successor trustee with accept the job when the comes time. As long as we're redoing things, is there anything you want to add? Just in case …"
  • "You're not talking about an alien abduction, are you?" I asked, smiling as a pun took shape. "Is there a particular date here? A dead–line???"
  • "Nothing specific." She pretended not to understand. "Not yet anyhow. Think legacy."
  • "Like undergrad math research," I offered, thinking of a summer fellowship at Wright State.
  • "Perfect," she agreed, "Like Oklahoma, and whatever else. But without the NSF."
  • It is unlikely we will agree on the specifics of the conversation or what followed.

Q How did you set about establishing the TAM Fund?

Our CPA and financial advisor – pointing out repeatedly that they were not lawyers – helped us identify possible changes and additions to the trust document. The legal department of our corporate successor trustee asked for clarifications about their role. In a single zoom session, our financial advisor and two individuals at the AMS guided us further. Our new lawyer put it all together. I am not a lawyer, but in general terms, Shirley and I will manage the trust assets for ourselves while at least one of us is able. This will be followed by a lengthy period when they are managed by the successor trustee for the benefit of our heirs, according to our wishes. When our heirs are no longer eligible for benefits, the remainder will be transferred to the TAM Fund to be managed in perpetuity by the AMS for the benefit of undergraduate research in mathematics.

We are grateful that the AMS has many ways for making a planned gift. We have pledged to fully fund the TAM Fund during our lifetimes, allowing us to see the earnings used for existing programs such as the undergraduate travel program. Though we prioritize providing for our family first in our estate plans, we anticipate long-term growth for the portion eventually going to go to the TAM Fund.

We were not overly specific, in the details, even though I earlier used summer programs as an example. Our goal is to help undergraduates gain research experience through mentorships, stipends, and more. Mathematics itself may take on a new face, and collaborations between institutions, businesses, and professional organizations may play a significant role in the future.

We believe the AMS has the experience and resources necessary to be a facilitator and leader in this field.


  1. Sylvester's Problem on Collinear Points, MR0235452 (38 #3761).
  2. Only nineteen Nebraska students have gone on to national competition since 1942.
  3. Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Complete Sets of Propositional Connectives, Zentralblatt 0165.30303.
  4. Some Applications of Model Theory to Topology, see MR0386996 (52 #7845) and MR0416907 (54 #4979).
  5. Recharacterizing Eulerian: Intimations of New Duality, MR0762316 (86a:05083).
  6. Topics in Intersection Graph Theory (with F. R. McMorris), MR1672910 (2000e:05001).

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