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Math instructor leaving after 50 years at UW-Eau Claire

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Tom Wineinger taught mathematics to college students in Eau Claire for 50 years. He presided over his last class at UW-Eau Claire this month.

A half-century ago, Dr. Tom Wineinger left his private-sector job working on safety analyses for nuclear reactors in Idaho and moved back to the Midwest to teach mathematics at Wisconsin State University-Eau Claire.

Wineinger never thought he still would be teaching algebra and calculus to college students 50 years later at what is now the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The longtime instructor taught his final class at UW-Eau Claire this month.

“It was never in my plans at all. It just happened,” Wineinger, 79, says of his long teaching career. “Fifty years is enough. It’s a nice even number.”

Wineinger, the son of two educators, always had a mind for math.

“I find that I’ve always been interested in how things look and are structured,” Wineinger says. “There are a lot of patterns and structure in math. I’m one of those people who can’t remember a street name but I can remember where it is on a map.”

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Wineinger graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in central Iowa before receiving his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Iowa State University.

Wineinger worked in an industrial setting for three years in Idaho Falls, Idaho, before deciding he wanted to return to the classroom as he had done as a teaching assistant at Iowa State. He also longed to return to the Midwest where he grew up.

Eau Claire turned out to be the perfect Midwestern city for Wineinger, where he accepted a mathematics department position in 1970.

“I loved the town,” Wineinger says. “When I saw Eau Claire, it was a beautiful town. I drove through Carson Park and saw the rivers; that really turned me on.”

In addition to teaching, Wineinger was the mathematics department chair from 1995-2003. Wineinger was department chair during the turbulent times called the “math wars,” says Dr. Alexander Smith, who came to UW-Eau Claire in 1990 and today is math department chair.

“At the university level, this took the form of what was called ‘calculus reform,’” Smith says. “This often put Tom in a difficult position as department chair from 1995 until about 1999. But he managed it sensibly. He listened, he let people debate, he talked to people in private and he did all the right things to manage the tensions.

“When I became chair in 2007, I was so happy that these disagreements were in the past. At some universities, calculus reform tore departments apart. But Tom’s leadership as chair made the debate productive and we avoided this fate.”

In the classroom, Wineinger had a good reputation with students, Smith says.

“His class was always very structured,” Smith says. “Students knew what to expect, which is important to first-year students as they transition from high school to college.”

Wineinger officially retired in 2004, but he continued teaching applied mathematics courses primarily in the fall. Wineinger still enjoyed teaching and he preferred 8 a.m. classes so he could have the afternoons to himself.

“I think the energy that students will have is the energy teachers bring to class,” Wineinger says of those early-morning classes. “A lot of students who come at that time are pretty serious. They say they want to get up and get going.

“Watch some of the good teachers at UW-Eau Claire and they always bring energy into the classroom.”

Teaching in 2020 was a challenge for all instructors, and Wineinger was no different. Like many instructors, he taught his class virtually because of COVID-19.

“I think the university did the best they could,” Wineinger says. “One of the strengths of UW-Eau Claire is its ability to get through hard times.”

Looking back at 50 years of teaching college students, Wineinger doesn’t see much difference between students in the 1970s and the Blugolds of today.

“I think you see certain human characteristics that don’t change over time that much,” Wineinger says. “If you take an above-average student who is very disciplined, they do really well in college. They work hard and are very conscientious. They shine in college and certainly shine afterwards.

“Bright students often have to learn to be successful through self-discipline and fortitude.”

As for UW-Eau Claire, Wineinger has praise for its evolution from a teachers college to a strong liberal arts university known for faculty-student research collaborations.

And Wineinger’s family certainly found UW-Eau Claire to its liking: Both of his daughters and sons-in-law are graduates and two of his grandchildren are current Blugold students.