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Alphonse Buccino, PhD, died July 6, 2015, at age 84, in Baltimore.
Alphonse Buccino, PhD, died July 6, 2015, at age 84, in Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun)

Alphonse "Al" Buccino, an esteemed mathematician who worked for the White House and served as a college dean, died July 6 after a brief illness at Union Memorial Hospital. The 84-year-old had dementia.

He held the position of dean of the College of Education at the University of Georgia, taking a one-year leave of absence to work in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He retired in Bethesda and moved to Roland Park Place in Baltimore about five years ago.

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"He was a real intellectual but also very pragmatic," said his son, Daniel Buccino, a Baltimore-based psychotherapist. "He liked big ideas and abstractions and logical puzzles."

Dr. Daniel Buccino remembers his father as a warm man with generosity of spirit. He said his mix of intellect and pragmatism was evident in his mathematics dissertation in which he included several allusions to "Alice in Wonderland."

Born in 1931, Dr. Buccino was the son of Aniello and Anna Tino Buccino, Italian immigrants. He grew up in New York City.

He dropped out of high school after his mother's death to support his family and was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Korean War. After achieving the rank of captain, Dr. Buccino left the service and enrolled in the University of Chicago, where he went on to earn a doctorate in mathematics.

He was granted a high school diploma in 1989 from his alma mater, Richmond Hill High School in Queens, N.Y. Dr. Buccino called the principal after reading an article about the school granting an honorary degree to pop singer Cyndi Lauper, who also had dropped out. The school agreed to issue him a diploma, and Dr. Buccino was even invited to speak at the graduation that summer.

"He said, 'I'm a Richmond Hill High School drop out who made good,'" Dr. Daniel Buccino said, recalling the conversation his father had with the principal. "It was fun to be able to attend my own father's graduation."

After graduating from the University of Chicago, Dr. Buccino worked as a professor at Roosevelt and DePaul universities in Chicago.

The Rev. John Richardson, chancellor of DePaul University, said one of the mathematician's greatest attributes was his loyalty to the entire institution, not just his department.

"He was a very intellectual person, bright — and believed in learning," Rev. Richardson said. "In addition to being a scholar, he was very personable. He was very well liked by the faculty and the students."

From Chicago, he moved to Washington, where he worked for the National Science Foundation from 1970 to 1984.

Dr.Ron Calinger, a retired professor of history from Catholic University of America, met Dr. Buccino at one of the foundation's conferences, and the two remained close friends for nearly 20 years.

"It took us maybe 20 seconds to become good friends," Dr. Calinger, of Silver Spring, said. "He was just a genuine fellow."

They shared weekly lunches, where Dr. Calinger said they talked about the history of mathematics "from Archimedes in antiquity to Leonhard Euler. We talked about Euler for at least five years." Dr. Buccino also loved to talk about his two granddaughters, who Dr. Calinger said "were the joys of his life."

Dr. Calinger said Dr. Buccino leaves a legacy in the world of mathematics instruction for his insistence that the history of the subject be taught to students. He also stressed the importance of different fields — math, physics, economics — collaborating.

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"You may not know the name, but you may say, 'Why are we doing more of the history of math?' And in the background is Al Buccino."

Known for his support of research, education and policy, Dr. Buccino was recruited to serve as dean at the University of Georgia. He held that position from 1984 to 1992, and again for about a year after returning from the White House.

He worked as an adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1992-1993. His son said he was quick to remind people his appointment was "professional, not political."

"He was committed to excellence and rigor in education," Dr. Daniel Buccino said. "He was proud of building the University of Georgia College of Education into a Top 10 designation during his tenure. He was interested in teaching teachers."

In death, his son said, Dr. Buccino will continue to teach. He donated his body to science through the Maryland Anatomy Board.

Besides his career, Dr. Buccino enjoyed jazz and the theater. He also was an avid reader and frequently exercised, including walking and biking.

A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Saints Philip and James Church, 2801 N. Charles St., Baltimore. Interment will be private.

Memorial gifts, in lieu of flowers, can be made in his honor to support the Alzheimer's disease research efforts at the Johns Hopkins University/Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry, Development Office, 550 N. Broadway, Suite 914, Baltimore 21205, or to Saints Philip and James Church.

In addition to this son, Dr. Buccino is survived by his wife of 62 years, Estelle A. Buccino; and two granddaughters, Carlene and Claudia Buccino.

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