Obituary: Courtney Stafford Coleman

Great-grandfather, accomplished mathematician, author

Courtney Stafford Coleman died peacefully in the early hours of December 2 at Woods Health Services, La Verne. He had celebrated his 93rd birthday in July with family. After living in Claremont for 42 years, he and his late wife, Julia, had moved to Hillcrest Retirement Community in the summer of 2001.

Courtney was one of twin brothers born to Una and Courtney Clemon Coleman on July 19, 1930 in Ventura, California. His mother, Una Stafford, a teacher with a degree in education from Stanford, met his father, Courtney Sr., when he was driving the tailings truck at a silver mine in Jerome, Arizona. They were engaged after four dates over 10 days.

After the wedding, they lived in a couple of rental homes in Ventura County before the young family moved to an avocado farm in 1933. In 1936 his father’s employer, the Associated Oil Company, moved them to Hollister, California, where they would spend the next 43 years and expand the family with the births of daughters Margaret and Nancy. In addition to working for the oil company, his father worked as a deputy sheriff and managed a hardware store in Hollister. After he injured his back at the hardware store, his mother resumed teaching.

Courtney Jr. and his twin brother were fluent readers by age 4, so when they were enrolled in first grade at Hollister Grammar School at age 6 their teacher quickly bumped them both into the second grade, where they were the youngest, but tallest students. Later, a San Benito County High School teacher discovered that he was gifted in mathematics and encouraged him to pursue the subject at Berkeley. He began his college studies at Berkeley in 1947, shortly after his 17th birthday.

He completed his undergraduate degree in math in 1951, and then drove across country to begin his graduate work at Princeton University. He earned his M.A. in 1953 and Ph.D. in 1955. He frequently crossed paths with Albert Einstein and John Nash (the subject of the film, “A Beautiful Mind”) on campus in those days at Princeton. He also met his future wife, Julia Wellnitz, during this time. She was a grade school teacher in nearby Trenton.

He and Julia were married in Plainsboro, New Jersey in 1954. Their first child, David Eugene, arrived the following spring. His teaching career took him to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where daughter Margaret Rachel was born in 1956.

He was doing research at the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Baltimore when he was offered a job at the newly established Harvey Mudd College in Claremont. The summer of 1959 found the family of four traveling across country by car to their new lives in Claremont. A second daughter, Diane Elizabeth, was born in 1961. In 1965 the family moved from a rented circa 1900 house near the colleges to the other side of town, purchasing a house next to his Harvey Mudd colleague and textbook co-author, the late Robert Borrelli and his family.

He had an illustrious writing and teaching career, spanning 43 years in Harvey Mudd College’s math department. Differential equations was his field of specialty. “Courtney also possessed a unique sense of humor, and began every lecture with a corny joke,” his family shared. Lisa Birnbach, author of “The Preppy Handbook” and “The CollegeBook,” mentioned that he was one of Harvey Mudd’s most popular math professors.

He was also an accomplished, well respected mathematician. He was offered sabbaticals at the Research Institute for Advanced Studies, twice at the Math Institute in Oxford, England, and was invited to lecture on differential equations twice behind the Iron Curtain at Moscow University.

With his Claremont neighbor and colleague Borelli, he co-authored, “Differential Equations, a Modeling Perspective,” a textbook used in many advanced math courses at Harvey Mudd and elsewhere, the basis of many other books in the field. He co-authored and published multiple papers on the subject of differential equations as well. He was a member of the American Mathematical Society, The Mathematics Association of America, and the Board of Editors for the serial “Contributions to Differential Equations.” Founding Harvey Mudd President Joseph Platt refers to his years of distinguished service in his book about the college, “The First Twenty Years.” His love of math and teaching inspired several of his students, including Jennifer Switkes and Rick Zuker, to follow in his footsteps and become math professors.

In his spare time he enjoyed reading mysteries, playing the piano, travel, camping, and hiking with his family. As church involvement was important to his wife, he sang with the Claremont Presbyterian Church choir, and was a deacon of the church for a time. “He was a loving husband, and father, intent on teaching his children to trust their instincts and pursue their own interests in career and life,” his family said.

His twin brother, Allan, and his wife of 58 years, Julia Wellnitz Coleman, predeceased him.

He is survived by his sisters Margaret Colescott and Nancy Coleman; children, David Coleman, Margaret Coleman, and Diane Chang; grandchildren Erica Ramstetter, Katie Wagner, Chris Chang, Rebecca Sarber, Brittany Beldham, Rebecca Coleman, and Tim Coleman; and by six young great-grandsons.

A celebration of Life will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 16 at the Dean Keiffaber Interfaith Chapel at Hillcrest Retirement Community, 2705 Mountain View Dr., La Verne, CA 91750. A reception will follow.

Memorial donations in his name may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association at


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