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WESTERN MONTANA LIVES - Merle Manis was a Renaissance man
WESTERN MONTANA LIVES - Merle Manis was a Renaissance man

Merle Manis was a dichotomy of sorts.

A groundbreaking mathematician, he made a living with his brain, yet it was that organ that failed him when he died of a stroke March 11, at age 73 in Missoula.

He was a tiny baby - at 3 pounds, he spent his first weeks of life swaddled behind the kitchen woodstove in western Montana during the Depression - yet he grew into a stout fireplug of a man.

Born into poverty - he and his three sisters barely escaped when the family's two-room shack burned down - he made a comfortable life for his wife, Roberta, and four daughters in a large Victorian house in Missoula's historic University district.

He grew up on farms and valued Montana's rural heritage, yet he hunted only to feed himself and didn't enjoy the outdoors.

His father died when Manis was 10, yet he was devoted to his own children and was a father figure to students he mentored and took into his home when they had no place else to go.

As a youth, he was a rebellious student, bored by the curriculum, an annoyance to his teachers, who told him he was "throwing his life away," yet he taught himself algebra and geometry, went on to receive a doctoral degree and became a teacher himself.

He disdained authority, yet he enlisted in the U.S. military, one of the most regimented organizations in the world, where he refused an officer's commission in the Air Force because he disliked elitism.

He wandered the West as a young man, a railroad hobo who worked a succession of manual labor jobs - in a sawmill, picking apples and such - yet he became a homebody and neighborhood activist in later years who rarely left Missoula.

When he entered the University of Montana as an undergraduate, he had a superior intellect, yet he had an intellectual inferiority complex and didn't consider himself worthy of a doctoral degree.

He had a bad memory, yet he passed exams easily by learning the material in just one reading.

Manis was a theoretical mathematician, yet he loved numbers and theories just for the pure knowledge, the pure pleasure, and had no interest in using math for engineering and other practical applications.

He was an ivory-tower academician, yet he spent his free time using hammers, saws and other hand tools to renovate his old house and was an amateur inventor and ceaseless tinkerer.

Manis loved the neatness of numbers, yet he was a disheveled dresser who sometimes was mistaken for being homeless.

His mathematical achievements were internationally known, yet he hadn't published a peer-reviewed paper for decades before he retired from the University of Montana, where he taught from 1965 to 1996.

He didn't believe in God, yet he loved to help out his wife's Episcopalian church.

He nearly died 20 years ago from heart problems, yet he became an exercise fanatic who kicked the smoking habit cold - whenever the urge returned, he took out the cigarette he kept in his pocket and told the tobacco: "I'm better than you."

Manis had few possessions in his youth, yet he became a pack rat who raided rummage sales and hoarded supplies to use in his home renovation projects.

He was a disciplinarian at home, yet he had a soft spot - when he was too bossy, he sought forgiveness from his wife by giving her Starburst candies, one, two or three depending on the severity of his transgression.

He was a backyard naturalist who admired birds, squirrels, flowers and tomatoes in the garden, yet he dreamed of mathematics, talking theorems in his sleep until his wife assured him: "You've already proved that one, dear."

In short, he was a Renaissance man. His fellow math professors at UM, now retired, said so.

"He was just a guy you could talk to," said Rudy Gideon.

"He was a wonderful friend," said Carol Ulsafer.

"I learned a lot of little things from Merle's life," Keith Yale said. "If you ran into problems, he always put things in perspective."

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