David Zitarelli, 77, formerly of Springfield, Delaware County, a professor emeritus at Temple University and a leading expert on the history of American mathematics, died Monday, Dec. 3, of cardiac arrest at his home in Minneapolis.
From 1970 to 2012, when he retired and moved to Minnesota, Professor Zitarelli taught in the university’s mathematics department. He conducted research, wrote, and lectured widely.
“What a charmed life!” he wrote about himself in an autobiography on Temple’s website. “Since I loved school, this was the perfect setting for me, and I have remained in academics my entire life.”
For the first decade of his career, Professor Zitarelli concentrated on teaching algebraic formulations. Then he and colleague Ray Coughlin were approached by the department chair to create a course in Temple’s College of Arts and Science for non-science majors.
“This led to my second career — author — as Ray and I wrote a dozen books over the next 10 years,” he said in the autobiography. Professor Zitarelli and another colleague, David R. Hill, also collaborated on the first mathematics computer laboratory at Temple.
“David and I had many moments writing and teaching,” Hill wrote in an online condolence book. “I treasure those times. I will miss his smile and humor.”
But Professor Zitarelli found himself pulled in a different intellectual direction. “Although I seem to have been born a mathematician, I was always captivated by the history of mathematics, so I read lots of it,” he wrote.
Professor Zitarelli became an authority in the field after serving as the abstracts editor of the journal Historia Mathematica in 1988. In 2002, he offered his first course at Temple on the history of American mathematics, and he taught the course every other spring until he retired.
He organized conferences on the topic from 1998 to 2004 and, with colleague Karen Parshall, wrote a textbook providing a framework on the subject for teachers.
He was honored twice in 2001 with the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching and the title of Honors Professor of the Year.
“I also won a Great Teacher Award in 2005. Some regard this prize as the most prestigious teaching award at Temple, but I view it as secondary to my selection as Honors Professor of the Year,” he wrote in the autobiography. Students, rather than administrators, make the selection of Honors Professor of the Year.
Born in Chester, he grew up in Holmes, a town next to Glenolden. He graduated from Ridley High School in 1959 and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1963 and a master’s degree in 1965, both from Temple. He completed a Ph.D. in mathematics at Pennsylvania State University in 1970.
His son, Paul, said Professor Zitarelli was perhaps most proud “of the legions of students he inspired, persuaded, and cajoled into mathematics-related careers.”
He married Anita Paul in 1966 and the couple raised two children. In retirement, the couple split their time between their children’s families in Minneapolis and Bainbridge Island, Wash.
“Despite initial sadness about leaving his Philly roots, he flourished in the Upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, making easy friends and cherishing the chance to participate in the daily lives of his grandchildren,” his son said.
Professor Zitarelli’s love of teaching was matched by his love of sports. He coached softball on a field along Saxer Avenue in Springfield and inspired many young women to strive for athletic excellence, his son said.
The professor was an inveterate jogger and record-keeper. He logged every mile he jogged — 1,110 this past year alone, according to his journal.
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Nicole Danielsen; four grandchildren; and two brothers.