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Tom Osler, celebrated Rowan math professor, national champion distance runner, author, and mentor, has died at 82

He made calculus understandable, completed a 24-hour, 100-mile race for charity in 1976, and estimated in 1979 that he had already run the equivalent of twice around the world.

"Tom was a running pioneer," a friend said in a tribute. "He was one of a kind. Tom inspired many. What a great life."
"Tom was a running pioneer," a friend said in a tribute. "He was one of a kind. Tom inspired many. What a great life."Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff file photo

Tom Osler, 82, of Glassboro, longtime award-winning math professor at Rowan University, three-time national distance-running champion, prolific writer and author, and mentor, died Sunday, March 26, of a pulmonary embolism at Inspira Medical Center Mullica Hill.

Dr. Osler was so successful as both a math professor and long-distance runner that family, friends, and fans still debate over which achievements are greater. His impressive 51-year teaching career at Rowan began in 1972, and the university celebrated his 70th birthday in 2010 by hosting a two-day national math conference they called Oslerfest.

“I’m never retiring,” he told The Inquirer in 2006. And he never did. “When I do a math problem, I’m in heaven,” he said in the article. “It’s like listening to Mozart.”

Dr. Osler also won three national Amateur Athletic Union running championships and the 1965 Philadelphia Marathon. Starting in 1954, when was 14, he ran in thousands of races and estimated in 1978 that he had already run the equivalent of twice around the world.

He was a founding father in 1958 of the Road Runners Club of America and quietly admitted to his son, Eric, that he had an ever-so-slight preference for road races over arithmetic. “It’s the act of running, the rhythm,” Dr. Osler told The Inquirer in 2004. “It’s the sport of kings.”

In the classroom, Dr. Osler was an expert on fractional calculus. He was popular, students said, because he made mathematical variables, special functions, and number theory comprehensible. Vojislava Pophristic, dean of Rowan’s College of Science and Mathematics, said in a tribute: “Dr. Osler was one of those rare professors who has influenced thousands of students.”

He wrote or contributed to more than 150 often-cited papers on math and physics, and won prestigious awards from the American Federation of Teachers, Mathematical Association of America, and the journal Mathematics and Computer Education.

He cofounded the Rowan Math-Physics Seminar, now called the Mathematics Colloquium, in 1992 and taught for a few years at Drexel and St. Joseph’s Universities, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before Rowan.

Dr. Osler began running in earnest after his mother gave him a stopwatch for his 14th birthday. He ran the mile in 4 minutes, 54 seconds at Camden High School and won the Amateur Athletic Union’s 25-kilometer national championship in 1965.

In 1967, he won the AAU’s 30-kilometer and 50-mile national championship races, and finished 19th in the Boston Marathon with a career-best marathon time of 2:29.04. He was most proud, however, of completing a 24-hour, 100-mile run for charity on the Rowan track in 1976.

He kept a diary of his races dating to 1954 and recorded No. 1,800 in 2004. He averaged 50 training miles a week for years, became a mentor to countless younger runners, and was inducted into the National Road Runners Club Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Gloucester County Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

“He wasn’t blessed with natural ability, but through hard training and smart training he accomplished a lot,” Seth Bergmann, a fellow runner and professor at Rowan, told The Inquirer in the 2004 article.

A writer as well as a mathematician, Dr. Osler published 1967′s The Conditioning of Distance Runners and 1978′s Serious Runner’s Handbook. He coauthored 1979′s Ultra Marathoning: The Next Challenge with Ed Dodd and wrote numerous booklets about training methods, nutrition, and footwear.

“I didn’t have a gift,” he told The Inquirer in 2006. “But I loved running anyway, the exhilaration of feeling the body in full stride.”

Born April 26, 1940, Thomas Joseph Osler grew up in Camden and described himself to writer Davy Crockett as “a sickly little kid at 12 or 13 [who] didn’t have many friends.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at Drexel in 1962 and planned to become an electrical engineer.

But a chance opportunity to teach calculus while still a student at Drexel piqued his interest in math and teaching, and he went on to earn a doctorate in mathematics at the Courant Institute at New York University.

He met Kathy Richter at a party in New York, and they married in 1968. They had sons Eric and Bill, and lived in Glassboro. His wife died in 2016

Dr. Osler was a member of the South Jersey Athletic Club and Road Runners Club of Woodbury, and he sometimes sang Grateful Dead songs during long practice runs. He was a sharp dresser and engaging conversationalist, and his favorite class was History of Math.

He attended the opera often, read poetry, and swam to stay active. He was born with high cholesterol, suffered a stroke in 2003, and received an embedded defibrillator a few years later. Replacement hip surgery in 2017 ended his running career.

“He was family-oriented,” his son Eric said. “He was a good influence, steady and consistent, an incredible example.” Longtime friend Jack Heath said he’ll never forget Dr. Osler’s “unwavering friendship, his constant encouragement, and his kindness.”

In addition to his sons, Dr. Osler is survived by two grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, and other relatives. A sister died earlier.

Services were March 30.