Robert Borrelli

Professor, mathematician, wine aficionado

Robert Borrelli, a longtime Claremont resident, died on September 11, 2013. He was 81 years old.

Mr. Borrelli was born on March 4, 1932 in Clarksburg, West Virginia to Giuseppe Salvatore “Joe” Borrelli and Giovannina “Jenny” Rossi, an immigrant family from southern Italy.

In 1947, Joe bought a prune ranch in Gilroy, California but soon realized that he wasn’t cut out for farm life. Within a year, he traded the ranch for a house and an adjacent apartment building on Julian Street in San Jose, making half of the ground floor into a grocery store, while Jenny looked after their 6 children and kept the household running.  

Young Robert showed an early aptitude for learning, earning himself the nickname “Professor” when he was still in elementary school. He grew up not far from where he would eventually attend college: San Jose State, Stanford University and UC Berkeley. What made his academic success so surprising is that, at that time, children from poor Italian families were all expected to work and contribute to the family coffers.

All of his friends were planning on attending college, and he wanted to go too. Instead of broaching the subject directly, he asked his adored older brother James to ask his mother to ask his father, fully expecting to be turned down. When the answer came back “Yes,” he was elated. So as not to incur the wrath of his father, Mr. Borrelli snuck off to classes and returned in time to do his evening chores before dinner. Only later did he learn that James never did ask for permission, as the answer most certainly would have been “No!” Instead, James secretly funded his younger brother’s undergraduate education himself by doing odd jobs.

In the fall of 1951, Mr. Borrelli transferred from San Jose State to Stanford, with his room and board costs again covered by James. His college years coincided with the Korean War. Since he was registered for the draft, he had to apply for a deferment in order to continue his studies. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1953, he applied for another deferment, during which time he earned a master’s degree in mathematics, also from Stanford.

In 1954, Mr. Borrelli joined the Army, serving in the Army Counter Intelligence Corp (CIC). Because he had studied the German language in college, he was assigned to a small intelligence unit near Offenbach, Germany. It was here that he met Ursula Lebeda, a student at the University of Frankfurt who was teaching German to the GIs through the University of Maryland Overseas Program.

After 6 months of dating, Mr. Borrelli married Ursula on July 7, 1956 in her mother’s hometown, Bad Wildungen. Nine months later, their first child, Monica, was born. Upon discharge from the Army, Mr. Borrelli entered the PhD program in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley and the family moved back to the United States. During his graduate years, their children, Christina, Stephen and Margaret, were born.

Mr. Borrelli finished his graduate studies in 1963 and found a job working for a defense contractor. After just one year, he realized that crunching numbers for the government held no challenge and embarked on a teaching career instead. He accepted an assistant professorship at Harvey Mudd College (HMC) for half of his previous salary, moving his family to Claremont until he and Mrs. Borrelli moved to Upland in 1987.

Mr. Borrelli enjoyed teaching immensely, and was proud of his many accomplishments at HMC. During his time at the college, he served for 11 years as math department chair and 22 years as director of the Mathematics Clinic, a program that he helped found in order to address the needs of industry-bound HMC math graduates.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Borrelli set up 2 endowment funds in memory of his 2 deceased brothers: the Giovanni Borrelli Fellowship at HMC in honor of his younger brother John, and the James William Borrelli Fellowship in Art, an endowment fund in the Stanford Art Department in honor of his older brother James.

Mr. Borrelli also relished any opportunity to travel. His sabbatical leaves included residencies at MIT, the University of Bonn, the ESIEE school of engineering and electronics in Paris and Rensselaer Polytechnic University. In 1998, he was invited to visit the University of South Australia (UniSA), advising the school on how to start a program similar to the HMC Mathematics Clinic.

In 1998, Mr. Borrelli was awarded the Henry T. Mudd prize for exemplary service to Harvey Mudd College and its mission. He retired the following year after 35 years as an HMC faculty member, but continued to work on numerous pet projects, including the formation of the Claremont Center for Mathematical Sciences (CCMS).

CCMS was established in 2007 to promote collaborative research and creative teaching among the institutions of the Claremont Colleges Consortium: HMC, Claremont McKenna, Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps and the Claremont Graduate University.

Although Mr. Borrelli’s career kept him busy, he also found time over the years to pursue various interests. He was a serious wine connoisseur, who enjoyed collecting wines and served as founding director of the Claremont chapter of Les Amis du Vin.

“Our Dad was many things to many people,” his family shared. “To his beloved wife Ursula, now departed, he was ‘husband’ or ‘Luigi.’ To his children, he was ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy.’ To his 11 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren, he was ‘Nonno.’ To his students, he was ‘Professor.’ To some, he was ‘Uncle Bob’ or ‘compadre.’

“No matter what you called him, there was something about Robert that drew people in. He had a smile that was freely given. His eyes would twinkle when he spoke of favored topics: mathematics, Harvey Mudd College and its many clinic programs, his students’ accomplishments and, of course, wine!”

Mr. Borrelli is survived by his children, Monica Hess, Christina Franks, Stephen Borrelli and Margaret Murphy, and by his sister, Mary Stabile of San Jose, California.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the American Heart Association by visiting and selecting “Make a Memorial Gift.”



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