“Tell me who’s gonna fill those shoes?”: Remembering Dr. Thomas A. Fournelle, 1946-2010

Photo courtesy of Dave Buchanan

A “Frank Sinatra” hat used to decorate a suspender clad Tom Fournelle, as he would perch upon a desk and serenade his Parkside math students with his popular masterpiece, “The Calculus Blues”, a song for which he often received a standing ovation. Not only did this fedora enhance Fournelle’s performance, but it manifested his wit, dedication and above all else, his benevolent heart that seemed to pulsate the rhythm and blues. Little did his enthusiastic audience suspect that the man before them, wailing the blues with his guitar, would be laying next to his fedora at his funeral only a short few months later.

This is not a story of death. If any readers are looking for the details regarding the way in which 64-year-old Professor Fournelle died, they should navigate their web pages to the local newspapers. Dr. Thomas Fournelle left an enormous impact on Parkside and his community.

Fournelle’s very existence was defined by the things he was most passionate about. The love of his life, Katie Fournelle, his large family, his devotion to his spirituality, his career in teaching and his enthusiasm for music were the pinnacles of Fournelle’s life that not only shaped his character, but allowed him to touch the lives of many other individuals.

Tom Fournelle grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and graduated with his bachelors from Saint John’s University. He then received his Doctorate in Mathematics from the University of Illinois, and his research was frequently published in scholarly journals.

As a professor and two-time winner of the Stella Grey Award, Tom Fournelle graced Parkside’s classrooms with his incredible dedication and patience. As a higher level math professor, Fournelle made the commitment to each and every student to ease the sometimes rigorous equations and formulas that calculus classes entail. According to former Dean Dr. Donald Cress, Fournelle did everything in his power to help students succeed. In Cress’s time as a Dean at Parkside, he noticed a disturbing trend in students, where more often than not, students would settle for a major or career path that they had not originally intended on pursuing due to the difficulty of one or more classes required for their majors. Cress felt that Fournelle prevented that from happening with his ability to teach and the patience he offered to each and every student.

“Tom diminished that math anxiety, both emotionally and intellectually, which allowed students to pursue their majors with confidence and willingness. It was a tremendous gift,” said Cress.

“Professor Fournelle was an all-around approachable and personable guy,” said student Munjed Hamdan. “There was never a moment of hesitation if you ever needed help. He was such a caring man.”

One of the most notable examples of Fournelle’s dedication and fond memories that his colleagues hold of him is of the summer that he spent studying Korean. Fournelle heard that Parkside would be hosting Korean students in the fall, some of which would be taking his math class. After that, Professor Fournelle studied greetings and some of the fundamentals of Korean to ease the transition for his foreign students.

“It is difficult enough to learn calculus equations in your own language, much less a foreign language. Tom made sure that on the first day, he could greet those students in their own language, as a way to make them feel comfortable and ease the transition,” said Senior Councilor Marcy Hufendick. “That’s the kind of guy that Tom was.”

Other colleagues, friends and students remember Professor Fournelle for his soft spoken nature, accompanied by an incredible sense of humor and genuine happiness. 

“He was a great story teller, with a wicked sense of humor,” said Vice Chancellor Steve McLaughlin.

Both inside and outside of Parkside’s perimeters, Fournelle, quite simply put, was a blues man. The general consensus among his colleagues was what he lacked in vocal performance, he compensated for with his guitar. Fournelle’s appreciation for music was vast; he loved and appreciated many genres, from gospel, rock n’ roll, country to, most notably, rhythm and blues.

Dave Buchanan fondly remembers Tom Fournelle as a “Math teacher by profession, and a musician at heart. He had a PhD in the blues.”

It was Fournelle’s interest in music that brought him to one of the most cherished parts of his life; his eight year affiliation with the New Omega Baptist Church in Racine. After attending a funeral service at the church, Fournelle approached the organist who he thought had a jazzy sound that intrigued him. Fournelle and his wife Katie started attending services regularly, and became active members in the church community. This affiliation led to Fournelle’s favorite gig; his position as lead guitarist for Sunday morning worship services. New Omega Baptist Church Pastor Fred Richmond remembers Fournelle fondly as a man of his caliber who brought a great deal of joy to a primarily black church.

“Tom once approached me and asked ‘Pastor Fred, did you ever expect that a white Catholic would love a black Baptist church as much as I do?’” said Richmond. The Omega Baptist community adored Tom and his wife, Katie. The reciprocation of joy and spirituality was mutual between the church and the Fournelles. 

“Tom used to tell me that it was the Holy Spirit that guided his fingertips across those guitar strings, and that was something he was most grateful for,” said Richmond.

It is through such remembrances that the spirit of Doctor Thomas Fournelle will live on. The soul and legacy of an individual can be embodied within their smallest encounters to their lifelong friendships shared with the people around them. For students and faculty who were touched by Fournelle, and even for those who may not have known him, but have learned about him from such stories, there will be a memorial service on Friday, October 8th in the Student Ballroom. The ceremony is set to take place at 11:45.

The impact of a human life can be astonishingly immeasurable, even for a mathematician like Fournelle, who in his 27 years at Parkside, is estimated to have touched the lives of over 3,000 different students. As the school year continues, a question, best stated by acclaimed blues artist Buddy Guy, lingers in the hallways and within the minds of students and staff alike: “Tell me, who’s gonna fill those shoes?”

One thought on ““Tell me who’s gonna fill those shoes?”: Remembering Dr. Thomas A. Fournelle, 1946-2010”

  1. Dr, Fournelle’s pragmatic methods are an integral part of how I teach mathematics to high school students. He challenged me to see the beauty in mathematical elegance. Instead of teaching the class the traditional way, Tom challenged us to think about curves with respect to convergence and divergence. An example I remember was the Infinite Paint can where the area converged and the surface area diverged. He asked the class to realize a paint can where it could not hold enough paint to cover the outside of the can. Also He used matrices to simplify vectors in calculus. He challenged us to look for algebraic equations to simplify our differentiation. This helped out tremendously in differential equations.

    Without Tom I would not have thought about mathematics the way I do today. I thought of visiting him after I received my doctorate degree. I am saddened I won’t be able to do this. Dr. Fournelle was among the great mathematicians of UW Parkside. Tom used to say “Can you imagine what Issac Newton would be able to do if he had a calculator”. It seemed only like yesterday sitting in your class you were doing the Calculus Blues..

    Dr. Fournelle will be missed. i am so glad I had the time I did where Tom was my teacher. He literally touched my life. I only hope I am half the teacher to my students Tom demonstrated to me.


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