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How Math Prof Maxwell Reade Changed Delores Smith's Life

Photo of Maxwell Reade by Don Goings

“Delores Stanton, welcome to the University of Michigan. My name is Dr. Maxwell Reade. And while you’re at Michigan, I will be your daddy.”

Most people might have hung up on a call like that, especially since it came unexpectedly at 3 a.m. But to Delores (Stanton) Smith, MS’75, it changed the course of her life.

The person calling her from Michigan was Maxwell Reade, a U-M math professor whose real passion was recruiting students. In the 1970s, Stanton (whose married name is Smith) was a single parent attending Morgan State University in Baltimore. To put herself through college, she worked at the post office from 5:30 p.m. until 2 a.m.

Despite all she was juggling, she was a high-achiever and had applied to grad school in mathematics at Michigan. Reade noticed on Smith’s application that she’d written the best time to contact her was after worked ended at 2 a.m.

“He was very personable. He could have just sent a letter, but I think he stayed up to call,” Smith said.

When Smith gets to the “daddy” line in her story, there is no hint of irony or apology. It is a great compliment to Reade, and she follows by saying, “And I wasn’t the only one.” What a phrase like that meant to her and as many as 80-100 students during Reade’s career is that he did all he could to do everything to not only make it possible for them to come to Michigan, but for them to succeed when they arrived.

Who Is Maxwell Reade?

Maxwell Reade was a math professor. If you want the fancy name, he focused on classical complex analysis. But the way he explains his career, the math was a sideline to the students.

“I published about 80 inconsequential papers,” he says, waving his hand dismissively. “All of my time was essentially devoted to students. I wrote papers. I went to meetings. But students were my preoccupation.”

He traces his compassion for students in part to what his parents did for him when he was growing up in Brooklyn, New York. His dad had to stop working due to a heart condition, so his mom performed menial work to provide for her son.

“I was not really deprived because one thing my parents insisted on was that I finish college,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I have memories of my mother taking in work to sew labels on suits and ties that said ‘Made in Paris.’”

Their sacrifice made a big impression on him. Years later, including as associate chair of the Math Department, he began meeting struggling students who reminded him of his early days. He started seeking out students with financial need whenever he could, including when he attended conferences. When research grants paid him to travel, he would recruit disadvantaged students on the side.

“It gave me a lot of satisfaction if someone came at my request or invitation and succeeded.”

Passing It On

Delores Stanton Smith photoWhen Delores Smith (photo at right) was an undergrad, she found a burglar had broken down the door of her inner city apartment. It was the night before a final exam in calculus, and as a result she earned a B.

“I could have made an excuse the next day, but I didn’t. And a B was good. But I was an A student.”

When she arrived at Michigan, so much changed for her.

“I’d worked through college. I couldn’t believe coming to graduate school where I could focus on school. And my life is richer because of it.”

Smith had tried teaching before coming to Michigan, but had lost heart due to the school district’s policies. She decided to give it up and work in industry, where the money was much better. But then she saw how her professor lived his life.

“It was Dr. Maxwell Reade and his love of teaching that changed my mind,” she said. “He was the kind of professor who would spend time actually teaching, even students who may be slow or have other challenges. He knew the joy of that moment when the light comes on.”

Smith went on to earn a second master’s degree at Johns Hopkins and has had a long career teaching math at Coppin State University, a historically black university in Baltimore. 

She tells the story about one of her star students. When he took his first class with her, she heard he was reading at a third-grade level. Because she kept working with him, his true potential began to come out and he is now completing a PhD program.

To her, her students are a chance to do for others what Maxwell Reade showed her to do.

Looking Up an Old Friend

A few months ago, Smith came across a copy of Blazing Saddles at the store. It made her think about the day he came into class after watching it at the theater and couldn’t stop laughing. So she mailed it to him.

“About a year ago, I sat down and started thinking about all the people who influenced me, and I thought, ‘I wonder if Dr. Maxwell Reade is still alive?’ So I googled him and gave him a call.”

Reade is 97 years old now. He spends his days in his small apartment at a retirement home, propped up in an easy chair. In a stack of old papers nearby are Christmas cards and letters from former students, people like Delores Smith. They remember how he we went looking for them when they needed it most, to find a way to let them come to Michigan and thrive.

“He watched out for the students he recruited,”she said.

When they spoke by phone, he invited Smith to come visit him.

“I told him that if I get a chance soon, I will,” she said. “He said, ‘Well, you don’t have to hurry because I promised all my friends I’d live to be 100.”

How We Heard About This Story

Maxwell’s son, Tim Reade, MPH’80, is a member of the Alumni Association and told us about his dad at an Association event. He says his father was a big influence not only on his politics, but on his decision to care for others as a public health professional.

Everyone we asked about Maxwell gave us big smiles and great stories. It drove home what a difference a person can make.

“It’s a good thing you're doing to write about him,” Smith said. “He’s a man who gave his life to Michigan.”

Have you heard about what the Alumni Association is doing to promote diversity? Learn about the LEAD Scholars program, a scholarship that is creating opportunities that will extend to future generations.