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Carthage mourns the loss of Professor Emerita Charlotte Chell

December 31, 2020

Professor emerita of mathematics and computer science passed away Dec. 28

By Mike Moore, Carthage College

Charlotte ChellEven as they mourn the loss of groundbreaking Carthage faculty member Charlotte Chell, decades of colleagues are warmed by the memories of a woman whose passion and influence stretched from the sciences to the arts.

The professor emerita of mathematics and computer science passed away Dec. 28. She was 80.

“Charlotte Chell was one of Carthage’s great builders,” said President John Swallow. “We are deeply in her debt, for all that she accomplished and for all that she inspires us to do. Her life will be long admired by all who were fortunate enough to know her.”

After teaching at Carthage from 1975 to 1977, Prof. Chell returned in 1981 and continued full-time until retiring in 2013. With a primary appointment in mathematics, she became the first woman to serve as governor of the Wisconsin section of the Mathematical Association of America.

“She was an amazing person and a brilliant mathematician,” said Professor Mark Snavely, chair of the Mathematics Department, whose office is one of two on campus named for her. “I learned how to do mathematics in graduate school, but Charlotte taught me how to find mathematics everywhere around me — in board games, earrings, coffee makers, even Christmas tree lights!”

Largely self-taught in the emerging field of computer science, she launched the precursor to today’s computer science program in 1984. Prof. Chell later taught courses in the Great Ideas program and produced the College’s Christmas Festival for 26 years.

“Loving both mathematics and music, Charlotte also knew how to lead,” said President Emeritus F. Gregory Campbell. “She created an eminent natural sciences division and turned a small Christmas concert into what remains the crown jewel of Carthage culture. All the while, ignoring her own physical infirmities, she demanded far more of herself than of anyone else.”

Prof. Chell won Carthage’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1987-88 and the statewide MAA teaching prize in 2000. As a department and division chair, she recruited other top faculty members and secured long-term funding for hands-on research.

In 2010, Prof. Chell became only the second active faculty member to receive the Carthage Flame — the College’s highest honor.

“Charlotte was a ground-breaker in many respects and was a successful champion of her passions during a key time in our history,” said Professor Deanna Byrnes, dean of the Division of Natural and Social Sciences. “All of us at Carthage continue to benefit from her incredible energy, her generous and tenacious spirit, and the investments she made for our future.”

After seeing Prof. Chell’s ardent support for women in the sciences up close, Sara Jensen ’08 is determined to pay it forward. Now an associate professor of mathematics at her alma mater, she recalls a conversation she had with the pioneering faculty member as a Carthage student.

When Prof. Chell mentioned that she had to sign graduate school papers “C. Chell” to circumvent the rampant gender bias of that era, the undergraduate wondered aloud if she should follow suit. “Absolutely not!” Prof. Chell responded. “I did what I did so you wouldn’t have to.”

A lifelong devotee of music and other fine arts, Prof. Chell coordinated the efforts of various departments to make Christmas Festival run smoothly. She even designed the Isabelle and William Wittig Nativity Star, which hangs prominently in A. F. Siebert Chapel during the event.

Collaborating with music professor Peter Dennee, she helped it blossom into a major community tradition.

“We made a great team, with her detail-oriented approach and my more big-picture style,” said Prof. Dennee, who has directed the festival since 2007 and developed a close friendship with his colleague. “I will remember Charlotte’s welcoming smile and engaging personality, her inquisitive nature (which led to long and interesting conversations), and her passion for teaching and learning.”

Professor Emerita Charlotte Chell is pictured with Carthage Music Department faculty and stude...Professor Emerita Charlotte Chell is pictured with Carthage Music Department faculty and student performers at the conclusion of the 2012 Carthage Christmas Festival. Prof. Chell, who died Dec. 28, 2020, directed the festival for 26 years.

Prof. Chell’s personal impact equaled her professional reputation, as longtime staff and faculty member Jean Preston ’02 can attest. She worked closely with the professor as a divisional assistant.

A nontraditional Carthage student, Ms. Preston was disappointed to learn that her “mentor, sounding board, cheerleader, and very dear friend” had to miss the Commencement ceremony because of an out-of-town conference — or so she thought.

“She flew home just to be there, standing at the bottom of the stairs with a huge bouquet of flowers as I exited the stage with that diploma, smiling with pride and congratulations,” recalled Ms. Preston, who retired in 2019. “It still makes me cry when I remember that.”

Prof. Chell’s surviving relatives include her husband, Sam, a professor emeritus of English who taught at Carthage from 1968 to 2007, and two adult children.

Flags on campus will fly at half-staff in her honor. In addition, the upcoming video replays of the 2020 Christmas Festival at noon and 4 p.m. Friday, Jan. 1, will be dedicated to Prof. Chell.