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2006-03-16

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He came Ted Kaczynski, he left The Unabomber

BY KARL STAMPFL
Managing News Editor
Published March 16, 2006

Jess Cox
Kaczynski frequently visited the Arb according to University lore. (EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Daily)
Jess Cox
Kaczynski lived in 300 Prescott in East Quad Residence Hall. (Emma nolan-abrahamian/Daily)
Angela Cesere
Jess Cox
The University has the largest collection of Kaczynski letters in the United States, in the Labadie Collection of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. (EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Daily)

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Click here to view Ted Kaczynski's letter to The Michigan Daily

It's been 43 years since Ted Kaczynski first stepped onto the University of Michigan campus.

Since then, he's spent 18 of those 43 years - from 1978 to 1995 -mailing bombs. He's killed three people, wounded 29 and received four life sentences without parole.

But he still describes his five years at the University as among the worst in his life.

"My memories of the University of Michigan are NOT pleasant," he wrote me in a letter dated Jan. 16.

Attached to the letter, he included a hand-copied excerpt from his 1979 unpublished autobiography on extra-long legal paper.

"So I went to the U. of Michigan in the fall of 1962, and I spent five years there," he wrote. "These were the most miserable years of my life (except for the first year and the last year)."

When Kaczynski entered the University, he was a precocious, solitary mathematics student whose brilliance his undergraduate education at Harvard had not yet revealed. It was 1962. He was 20 years old. His name was still Ted Kaczynski.

By the time he'd left, it was 1967. He was 25 years old. He had earned a master's and doctorate in mathematics. And he'd developed an identity with a different name. He was the Unabomber.

The University was not Kaczynski's first choice for graduate work. He also applied to the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago. All three schools accepted him. None initially offered a student-teaching position or financial aid.

His grades at Harvard were unexceptional, especially for someone who had entered the world's most prestigious at age 16. In his last year as an undergrad, he scored a B+ in History of Science, B- in Humanities 115, B in Math 210, B in Math 250, A- in Anthropology 122, C+ in History 143 and A- in Scandinavian. Earlier in his career, he earned an embarrassing C in Mathematics 101. He finished with a 3.12 GPA. Those grades may not seem drastically poor - especially given it was a time before rampant grade inflation - but Kaczynski had a 170 IQ at age 10. He was expected to perform better.

The University of Michigan eventually offered him a grant of $2,310 a year to serve as a student teacher. He packed his bags and traveled to Ann Arbor.

His grades at the University marked an improvement from his grades at Harvard. He limited himself to two courses per semester to accommodate his considerable teaching duties.

During his five-year career, he came into his own academically. In a turn around from his struggles at Harvard, Kaczynski's lowest grade - save a failure in physics - was a B-. He only received four other B's to go along with his 12 A's.

His teaching, though, was not up to par. After sitting in on his class on Oct. 12, 1962, an evaluator gave him lukewarm marks: a "good" in categories like subject knowledge but only an "average" in subjects like student participation.

There was one isolated rift with a student, who called him a "really incompetent teacher who did not know his subject." The professors kept a close eye on him for a while. There were no more complaints.

He was the darling of the math department, finishing his master's degree in 1964.

"Best man I have seen," wrote Math Prof. Allen Shields in a grade evaluation.

"He just seems a little too sure of himself," was Math Prof. Pete Duren's only complaint.

Maybe he had reason to be. Kaczynski had a habit of solving extremely difficult problems and then publishing them in prestigious journals.

Once, as Math Prof. George Piranian told author Alton Chase, Piranian told his students that he had a problem about a lesser-known mathematical subject called boundary functions that no one had solved. Weeks later, Kaczynski placed 100 handwritten pieces of paper on Piranian's desk. He had solved the problem.

Kaczynski's academic prowess peaked with his doctoral dissertation, titled "Boundary Functions." The dissertation was awarded the Sumner Myers prize for the University's best mathematics thesis of the year, netting Kaczynski $100. A plaque listing his accomplishment is still displayed near the East Quad Residence Hall entrance. If you Google "boundary functions" name now, the third result is an excerpt from Kaczynski's thesis.

Every professor on his dissertation committee approved it.

"This thesis is the best I have ever directed," Shields wrote in an evaluation form.

Kaczynski's genius was finally starting to reveal itself.


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