Jerry & Dorothy Mendelson

Class of 1946 (B.A.) and 1948 (M.A.)

Dorothy (B.A. 1945, CRED 1946) and Jerry Mendelson (B.A. 1946, M.A. 1948) met during their freshman year at UCLA, in a six-unit college algebra/analytic geometry course. In 1942, the math department consisted of approximately 25 students, of whom only five were women. Meeting to study before tests in the math library in Haynes Hall, Dorothy and Jerry became friends.

Dorothy and Jerry, c. 1970.

“Everybody wanted to work with Jerry,” Dorothy says, recalling her first impressions of her husband. “He knew all the answers and didn’t have to study, but he helped others. He was a nice guy and great at helping others understand complex problems, but he wasn’t anyone I would date.”

Laughing, Jerry elaborates.

“I was really backward socially,” he says. “I never asked Dorothy out until after we had graduated.”

Both Dorothy and Jerry grew up during the Great Depression and came from hardworking, middle class families for whom education was extremely important.

“As a child my allowance was 10 cents a week, which was just enough to go to the movies,” Jerry says.

“We couldn’t afford a two-wheeler bike that I wanted,” says Dorothy, “But I played a lot of baseball in the streets with friends.”

Dorothy was also involved in the Girl Scouts growing up and studied hard so that she could attend college.

“Getting an education was very important to my family,” she says. “There were four of us – my three sisters and I – and three out of four went to college.”

According to Jerry, in those days only about ten percent of high school graduates went to college, and of those only about half graduated. The rest were drafted into combat or got jobs to help their families make ends meet. Enrolling at UCLA in the fall of 1942, Dorothy and Jerry began college during wartime, when the University was on a three semester calendar with classes year round. Twenty-week sessions were squeezed into 16 weeks, plus a week of finals, and students and faculty received only one week off at Christmas. Jerry remembers the student population in those days being only about 9,000 and increasing to 15,000 after World War II ended and the GI bill brought veterans to campus.

Dorothy’s Graduation Photo, 1945.

The campus in those days consisted of only four main buildings on the quad plus a Life Science building and Kerckhoff

Hall, with the gymnasiums, track, and football fields below. What is now known as Southern Campus and the medical school were then merely open fields, where Jerry and his friends used to drive their cars to chase rabbits after class and on weekends.

In the 1942, UCLA tuition for science and math majors came to $19 per semester and an extra $10 in lab fees. Later, the tuition was increased to $29 for everyone and lab fees were eliminated. Both Jerry and Dorothy lived at home with their families during college and commuted to school, it being too expensive for them to live on campus.

To help pay for school, Dorothy and Jerry both held jobs throughout college and graduate school. Dorothy worked at the May Company department store, earning 50 cents per hour. Among the top students in the math department, Dorothy and Jerry both continued to study for tests together and by their junior and senior years, they were invited to become readers for the math department, making $1 an hour each to assist the faculty in reading and grading the homework and tests of lower classmen.

Recalling his wife’s approach to math, Jerry explains,

“Some students were only interested in getting the right answer, but Dorothy was interested in the theory behind each problem, which led to her deeper understanding of individual problems and math concepts overall.”

For fun, Jerry played basketball, tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, went to movies and operettas at the Greek Theater, and played volleyball by the swimming pool at the men’s gym with other members of the small computer community.  One of the math professors, Dr. Beckebach, held a barbeque for the department up at Big Bear Lake, where a badminton net was set up for a friendly game. Dorothy was an excellent badminton player, says Jerry, and it was in graduate school that he finally asked Dorothy out on their first date by inviting her to play a game with him.

Having completed her undergraduate coursework in 2.5 years on the wartime calendar, Dorothy received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in the winter of 1945, and began coursework the following semester for her teaching credential. A first-generation American born of parents from what was then Hungary and what is now Romania (father) and Slovakia (mother), Dorothy heeded the advice of her mother, who stressed the importance that her daughters have “something to fall back on to support themselves.” When she first enrolled as an undergraduate at UCLA, Dorothy had considered meteorology as a major to assist in the war effort. Cautioned, however, that once the war was over women meteorologists without field experience would have limited job opportunities, she switched her major to mathematics and completed the six units of graduate work in mathematics necessary for her teaching credential.

Had she gone to college a few years later, Dorothy says she would have worked in computer programming. Reflecting upon her decision to become a teacher, Dorothy says, “The only thing for women math majors at the time was teaching.” Enrolling in education courses required for a teaching credential, Dorothy found that they provided more theoretical background than practical application. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of her training came from student teaching at University High School under the guidance of Jane Zartman.

Jerry’s Graduation Photo, 1946.

“[Zartman] was an excellent teacher and provided an effective model of instruction for me to follow,” Dorothy says. “One of the teachers didn’t like me very much, because I believed in giving and grading tests each week,” she explains. “It was a lot of work, but I didn’t want my students’ grades for the course to be based solely on one test. The UCLA Education faculty advisor who oversaw my student teaching told me I would be ‘just fine,’ and I was.” At the end of the semester, Dorothy asked for reviews from her students, and they were very positive, although she was seen as strict.

In the spring of 1946, Jerry graduated Phi Beta Kappa and with Highest Honors from UCLA, and entered graduate school. The influx of GIs to UCLA around that time necessitated the addition of the first Teaching Assistants to the mathematics faculty, and Jerry became one of the first three TAs in UCLA’s math department.  One of them, Herman Khan, later became world-renowned military strategist and systems theorist.

Jerry made $75 per month for teaching two classes in his first year, and $100 per month in his second year.  As a TA and a graduate student, he worked for the lions of the math department from that period, including Dr. Paul Daus, the department head, Dr. G. E. F. Sherwood, a “great teacher,” Dr.  Angus Taylor, Dr. Paul Hoel, Dr. Edwin  Beckenbach, and Dr. Robert Sorgenfrey. Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Taylor had written and published a book together that was a major calculus text of the time.

“I learned to think and to problem solve at UCLA,” says Jerry. “UCLA taught me how to think independently, and attack difficult problems.”

As Jerry was completing his coursework for his master’s degree, two physicists from a top-secret project at Northrop Aircraft came to take a course in tensor analysis that Jerry was in. At the end of the course they invited him to take a job that paid $4,500 a year to start, a very high salary by the standards of those days.  His first assignment was to create the guidance equations for the Snark Missile, a stellar-guided 6,000-mile range cruise missile.  Switching from the mathematics of the project to its computer side, Jerry ultimately designed and led the project that built the ground-based digital computer for the Snark Missile.

A very rewarding career in the developing computer industry was born for Jerry at Northrop, as the computer industry on the West Coast developed out of this project. The Binary Automatic Computer BINAC, one of the first working computers in the country was contracted for by the project at Northrop.   The (need full name, then add acronym in parentheses) MADDIDA, the first digital differential analyzer, was designed and built on that project. IBM’s first successful computer, the card programmed calculator, was also developed by Northrop. During that same period, Jerry taught the first computer course in the math department at UCLA.

Later in his career, Jerry designed three different machines for the National Cash Register Company.  He constructed the architecture of a vote tallying system for Los Angeles County and designed several other special purpose digital systems. In the mid 1960s he became chief architect for the Scientific Data Systems computer company, leading the design of the architecture of a major family of SDS computers that took the company from a $20,000,000 per-year company to a $130,000,000 per-year company in five years.  That company was bought by Xerox, and Jerry went to work for the company, designing high-speed printing systems.  Among the designs that he was most proud of was a high speed Kanji printing system that he designed for Fuji Xerox, the first of such high-speed printing systems introduced in Japan.

Jerry, second from left, works with his colleagues on an electronic computer named “Quac,” c. 1950.

Dorothy’s first teaching job after graduate school was at Narbonne High School in Lomita, California, a six-year school within the L.A. City School system. There, she taught junior and senior high school math.

“Teaching jobs in math were easy to get,” Dorothy recalls. “There were never enough math teachers.”

One of the only women math teachers at Narbonne, Dorothy was also one of the only teachers willing to teach “slow algebra,” a course that covered the same material as regular algebra but in three semesters instead of two. Making $2,200 per year to start, Dorothy carpooled with three shop teachers to work every day.

There was no teacher’s union at the time, and the shop teachers were pro-labor and active in trying to get a union started in the district. This was during the McCarthy Era, when “people lost their jobs over the smallest thing,” Jerry reflects.

Teaching UCLA computer courses that were open to regular session and extension division students during this period, Jerry had to sign two loyalty oaths, one for each division. Dorothy was called in by her principal to discuss a claim that one of the other teachers had made about Dorothy being a liberal. The principal wrote on a form that he was satisfied that she was not a Communist, but “It was a terrible time,” she says.

Dorothy taught for seven years at Narbonne before taking seven years off for maternity and child care leave to care for their two sons.  When the boys were in elementary school, Dorothy served as a substitute teacher a couple of days a week. When the children were into their secondary schooling, Dorothy went back to teaching full-time. Taking a job at Taft High School, one of the premier schools in the Valley, she taught for another seven years.

Since their retirement, Dorothy and Jerry have filled their days with traveling to exotic corners of the world and building an extensive art collection dominated by sculptures from some of the greatest contemporary Native American artists. They also revel in the company of their two grandchildren, who are also high achievers; one a doctor, the other working on her second master’s degree.

Looking back over her career, Dorothy says she enjoyed teaching and the impact she had on her students.

“Being a good teacher is about understanding the educational background and mathematical foundation of a student, and building upon that to help them succeed,” she says. “The critical part of teacher’s job is not for the student to get the right answer, but rather for him to understand the processes that lead to that answer. I enjoyed that challenge very much.”


-Emily Strand