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In Memoriam: John William Layman of the Department of Mathematics

February 15, 2017

John Layman
John Layman

John William Layman, an alumnus of and associate professor emeritus with the Virginia Tech Department of Mathematics, died Feb. 8.

He was 84.

Layman graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in mathematics in 1954 with honors. After earning a master’s degree in 1956 and then doctoral degree in theoretical physics in 1958, he joined the Virginia Tech mathematics faculty, serving there until his retirement in 1995 as an associate professor emeritus.

Service to the Department of Mathematics, now part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, and Virginia Tech as a whole, was a family tradition. Layman’s father, also named John, was a two-time alumnus and taught at both the main campus and at the nearby Radford Arsenal, where a satellite campus served then newly returned World War II veterans. Layman’s brother, Rod, served on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.

Layman’s research focused on number theory, said longtime colleague Harry Johnson, who also taught in the math department for decades.

Additionally, Layman started the Virginia Tech Regional Mathematics Contest, which he directed from 1979 to 1991. Started locally, the contest has since grown to include more than 100 colleges, with 700 participants per year. Participants take two and a half hour tests featuring math problems, vying for cash prizes, with $250 of the prize money reserved for Virginia Tech students.

“He was a friendly, hardworking person who loved numerical mathematics and number theory,” said Johnson, who added that Layman was very involved with his church, Blacksburg Baptist, and regularly volunteered at a local food bank.

“He was just one of those really good human beings,” added James Shockley, also a longtime colleague in the math department, who retired as an emeritus associate professor. “He really liked teaching because he liked the students . . . He was always looking out for talent to encourage people.”

Shockley added that Layman was one of the earliest adopters of a personal computer that he knew, buying early models and then creating programs that could catch known integer sequences in submitted journal papers or a budgeting program for his church before such software became widely used.

Layman, Johnson, and Shockley gathered weekly for lunch for more than 30 years until Layman’s health became too frail.

“He was the best friend I ever had after I moved to Blacksburg,” Shockley said.

For many years, Layman and his wife, Jane, funded the Department of Mathematics’ Layman Scholarship for Undergraduates, named in honor of Layman’s parents, John C. and Elsie M. Layman.

“Many fine students have benefited from this scholarship, including one who is now a Virginia Tech lecturer and two who are now graduate students here,” said Peter Haskell, current department chair. “John and Jane also funded an undergraduate research prize, which is awarded annually for our best undergraduate research project.”

Haskell added that competitors must give talks representing their work.

“These talks are valuable experiences for the speakers and public affirmations of how exciting undergraduate mathematics can be.”

According to Layman’s obituary, he is survived by Jane, his wife of 56 years; a brother, T. Rodman Layman; a sister, Margaret Layman Forte; four children; and eight grandchildren.

McCoy Funeral Home of Blacksburg is serving the family. Memorial services were held this past weekend.