Remembering Professor Alfonso Gracia-Saz

I learned about the passing of Professor Alfonso Gracia-Saz when I was visiting my friend in Evanston, IL. When I heard the news, it’s been a month since he succumbed to the virus, just as the first-dose vaccination rate in Canada has approached more than 70%.

It is sad to learn that someone has from the virus, it’s sadder when someone dies just as Canada prepares to reopen, but it’s saddest when a gem in the U of T math department dies only at the age of 45.

Alfonso taught me in MAT 137, a proof-based calculus course at U of T. I only talked to Alfonso on two occasions, once during office hours right before the final exam, and once when I asked him to sign my transfer report form.

During office hours, I had a question about a proof. I no longer remember the question I asked, but I still clearly remember how after I asked my question and he finished explaining it, he handed me a bowl of chocolates, and asked me to take one.

And the last time I met him was right before I transferred to Penn. I went to his office so that he could sign the transfer report form. He asked me what I was planning to study. I told him something related to Math, but I admitted I wasn’t doing as well as I wished in the course. He pulled up my most recent test, and looked over a proof I wrote. He praised the structure of my proof—he said it was clean, succinct, and precise. Based on that, he said I’m ready to further study Math. And when he heard my diverse academic interests, he immediately understood why I wanted to transfer, I didn’t have to explain anything else to him.

Alfonso was this rare person who you feel have known you for years even though you’ve only talked to him a handle times. His kindness, passion, and care were immediately obvious to anyone he talks to.

And Alfonso was honest. Towards the end of the last lecture in the course, he told us the story about why he decided to study math, and how he bonded with his partner over math—he was gay. I remember how he got a standing ovation for his speech during the last lecture. His story was touching, personal, and authentic.

Just as his life story was touching, everyone who had a chance to get to know Alfonso almost always has a touching story about Alfonso. On his online memorial site, many students and colleagues posted their favorite moments with Alfonso. I am just another former student of his who wants to document Alfonso’s life as I can tell it.

After Alfonso, I never again encountered a professor whose talent in teaching and understanding students matched that of Alfonso. He was too young to have died. I will miss him dearly.