Ralph Raimi
Ralph Raimi

Ralph Raimi died January 2, 2017 at his home at Brookdale Ann Arbor, where he had lived since December 2015.

Ralph grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and received his B.S. in physics and M.S. and Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan. He served in the Army Air Force from 1943 to 1946, attaining the rank of first lieutenant. In 1947 he married Sonya Lenore Drews, also from Detroit. A Fulbright fellowship permitted them to spend the 1949-1950 academic year in Paris, attending courses at the Sorbonne. (In later years they would speak to each other in French when they didn’t want their children to understand.) His daughter Jessica was born in 1952, followed by Diana in 1953.

He joined the faculty of the University of Rochester in 1952 as a teaching fellow, ultimately becoming a full professor in 1966. He served as associate dean for graduate studies in the College of Arts and Science from 1967 to 1975, and as chairman of the Department of Sociology from 1983 to 1986. After being named emeritus in 1995, he became active in the movement to reform K-12 math education, and was a consultant on curriculum matters for several states.

Ralph’s interests including winemaking, for which he won a number of awards, and photography and painting. He was a member of a long-running monthly poker game and over the years was dealt a total of four royal flushes. With Sonya, he traveled widely, spending sabbaticals in Cambridge, England; San Francisco; and Vancouver, and made many trips to Europe. Sonya, who died in 2002, was an actress well known in Rochester, and with her in later years he attended the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland every summer, and frequently visited London in the winter for West End theater.

Ralph was a writer as well as a mathematician. He self-published two books, a collection of pieces called “Vested Interests,” in 1982, and a history of his high school debating society, “The Philomathic Debating Club,” in 1991. His book “Academic Dishonesty in College” (1989, 2004) was not published but is available on his web site. In addition to mathematical papers, he published many articles and editorials on various subjects in venues including Harper’s Magazine, Academic Questions, Rochester Review, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the UR’s Campus Times. He completed a book of stories he had told his children, “Tales of Jakie Zip Zip,” which was not published. He also corresponded extensively with friends, family and colleagues.

In mathematics he became best known for his writing on the first digit problem, or Benford’s law, discovered by the astronomer Simon Newcomb in 1881. Ralph’s article “The Peculiar Distribution of First Digits” appeared in the December 1969 issue of Scientific American, and he continued to receive queries on the subject thereafter, as the first-digit phenomenon has been increasingly used in forensic accounting.

Beyond mathematics and literature, his greatest love was for music. His childhood in the Depression era did not include music lessons, but he became an usher at philharmonic concerts in Detroit, and after he moved to Rochester he studied the flute at the Eastman School. He especially loved the school’s intimate Kilbourn Hall, where during the season he often attended two chamber concerts a week.

His brothers, Abraham Raimi of Southfield, Michigan, and Shepherd Raimi of New York City, predeceased him. He is survived by his two daughters; his grandchildren, Alice and Daniel Dryden and Jennifer Griffin; and two great-grandchildren, Elliot and Alexia Snethen.

His web site at http://web.math.rochester.edu/people/faculty/rarm/ contains many of his writings.

Contributions in his memory may be made to the Eastman School of Music.

--Jessica Raimi

  • Ralph Raimi's web pages at the University of Rochester

    Ralph’s work in the Nonpartisan Education Review:

  • Academic Dishonesty in College (book)