Spotlight: Holladay retires, pursues passions

Staff photo of Kenneth Holladay, Ph.D., a man who learns as enthusiastically as he teaches.

Photo courtesy of UNO

Staff photo of Kenneth Holladay, Ph.D., a man who learns as enthusiastically as he teaches.

Hope Brusstar, Editor-in-Chief

“It is both an honor and a horror to receive instruction from Holladay. He is brilliant and will easily leave you in the dust if you are not paying attention,” said one student on RateMyProfessor.

Said another, “If you want the privilege of hearing a literal genius give lectures that are heartfelt and moving, you should jump at the chance to take him. His talks are well-executed and brilliant.”

Long known for lectures given in booming tones and notes written on the board with thick railroad chalk, Prof. Kenneth Holladay has announced his retirement. Now, after passing decades at UNO and instructing thousands of pupils, this spring marks his last semester here.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus through and through, Holladay received his undergraduate degree in the spring of 1972 and went on to earn his Ph.D. in three years. Holladay describes his college career as one of the best periods of his life. His thesis advisor was Gian-Carlo Rota, a mathematician from Italy.

“Rota gives Hershey bars to students … if they catch him making a mistake or if they ask a question in class,” said MIT’s newspaper The Tech in 1997.

After college, “I applied to over 100 places,” said Holladay. Finally, he came to UNO, very qualified for a professorship.

Holladay teaches multiple classes even while remaining vigorously involved in his research. He is a partner in the Engineering and Applied Science Ph.D. program, which he says has now had close to 150 graduates.

“I’ve had a lot of good students over the years,” said Holladay. He mentions that Dr. Joel Webb was a student of his during his undergraduate career. He says the most gratifying part of teaching is “seeing them getting it.”

It’s not easy to impart mathematical knowledge to students, and how much the students practice at home is just as important as how helpful the teacher is. One of the biggest problems he faces is the prior knowledge a student brings to class, which sometimes misleads the student and obstructs the learning process.

As for himself, Holladay feels academically successful. He is usually able to prove his mathematical theorems, with the more challenging proofs taking him a couple years to complete. With a strong understanding of computer science, combinatorics, signal processing and numerous fields besides, Holladay considers himself an “exploratory mathematician.”

At home, Holladay has two sons and two daughters. His wife works for NASA, and as her career comes to a close, so does his. The couple intends to retire on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, and they’re currently hunting for a home with several acres of land attached. They expect their daily lives to be defined by long hikes in the nearby woods and mountains.

“One of the reason’s we’re moving to Oregon is, as my wife likes to say, it’s less than a day’s drive from Yellowstone. It’s awesome,” Holladay said. “We’re going to be living less than 20 miles from Mount Hood, which is an active volcano.”

Holladay’s wife wants to adopt two Boxers to take on walks, and he wants to adopt two Abyssinians. He will also continue cultivating plants.

“I would like to have a substantial greenhouse with heating in it,” Holladay added. “I’ve had trees that have been my buddies, and I’ve been taking care of them for 40 years. I have long been a bonsai grower … I feel like that will be one of the things I will go back to.”

As for his personal mathematical research, Holladay is continuing his work on circle systems and hopes to publish a book soon.