Late math professor off school names list

Maryam Mirzakhani
Maryam Mirzakhani

Daily Post Staff Writer

A recently deceased Stanford mathematician was removed from a short list of prominent figures from which to rename Palo Alto’s Jordan and Terman middle schools when her family didn’t show interest, according to the citizen committee charged with recommending new school names.

Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics, in 2014. She died of breast cancer at Stanford University Medical Center on July 14, at age 40.

Mirzakhani’s name was chosen last month as one of nine finalists for renaming the two schools, but withdrawn by the time the board-appointed Recommending School Names Advisory Committee presented its recommended names to the school board on Tuesday.

“It was because we were sensitive to her family,” Le Levy, committee chair and a former Palo Alto mayor, told the Post.

Talking to the family Levy said the committee asked Mirzakhani’s widower, Stanford mathematician Jan Vondrak, if he, their daughter and the rest of their family wanted the honor. Their daughter attends a Palo Alto school.

“He said he would talk to various relatives and get back to us, and he wasn’t able to get back to us in time,” Levy said. “Perhaps we didn’t give him enough time, but that was the bottom line.”

Vondrak told the Post that Mirzakhani’s name was withdrawn “for several reasons,” but declined to comment further.

“We did discuss her nomination because there were a lot of people who were interested in having her,” said retired Palo Alto Judge LaDoris Cordell, who sits on the committee. “The family just was not comfortable. They’re still grieving and they’re just not comfortable moving on right now.”

The school board voted to rename the schools last year because their namesakes, Lewis Terman and David Starr Jordan, were part of the eugenics movement.

On Tuesday, the board ruled out the two geographic names. Still left are six historic Palo Altans spanning the 19th and 20th centuries.

The option favored by the committee was Fred Yamamoto, a Palo Alto High School graduate who was held in Japanese internment camps during World War II, then enlisted in the military and died in combat. Board trustee Terry Godfrey said she backed Yamamoto and Anna Zschokke, who built Palo Alto’s first schoolhouse in the 19th century.

Other names Board Vice President Jennifer Di-Brienza said she liked Yamamoto, Palo Alto’s first woman doctor, Edith Johnson, prominent black Silicon Valley engineer Frank Greene Jr. or bicycle advocate and former Palo Alto Councilwoman Ellen Fletcher. The sixth remaining option is William Hewlett, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard.

The board is set to decide on new names for both schools at its March 27 meeting.