Campus, alumni mourn passing of iconic math professor Mel Casler

On Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, the Heidelberg community lost a beloved retired faculty member with the passing of Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Mel Casler. Below is a tribute announcement that Heidelberg President Rob Huntington shared with those who knew, loved and will miss Mel.
January 5, 2024.
Dear Colleagues,
With a heavy heart, I write to inform you of the passing of one of Heidelberg University’s iconic professors and a larger-than-life presence on our campus, even in his retirement.  Melvin F. Casler, age 92, passed away Tuesday, January 2, 2024, at The Courtyard East in Tiffin.  Mel’s stellar career as a math professor endured well beyond his 29 years as a faculty member and is best reflected in the legacy he imparted upon the lives and careers of his ‘Berg students.

Upon hearing of Mel’s death, many of those now-alumni have expressed sadness and shared stories and memories about Mel.  In their tributes, they described him as a gem, an exceptional professor, a mentor, a joyful and enthusiastic gentleman, intellectual, charismatic, kind, patient, one of a kind, a jokester with an insatiable zest for fun, and an ever-present fixture on Heidelberg’s campus.

Mel earned his B.S. degree in Mathematics from Aberdeen State University (formerly Northern State Teachers College) and his M.A. degree from Bowdoin College.  Prior to joining Heidelberg College in 1962, Mel taught at Adrian College in Michigan and high school in Ortonville, Minnesota.  He received Emeritus status from the Board of Trustees for his distinguished teaching.

Mel Casler with alumni

Although Mel officially retired 30 years ago, after having taught at Heidelberg from 1962-1966 and from 1968-1993, Heidelberg was the home he never truly left – much to the delight of his former students who sought him out to reconnect with him during class reunions.  During Alumni Weekends, you’d often find Mel, surrounded by former students, as if he were holding court once again.  What a difference he made in their lives!
Many of the tributes have focused on Mel’s teaching prowess; he had superior skill and patience for explaining complex calculus, geometry and statistics topics, among many other challenging math concepts.  He taught generations of students – parents and their children.  He could be intimidating at times with his loud, booming voice.  But ultimately, his goal was to help students fully grasp his course content.  He often went above and beyond to make sure they succeeded.
Just as Mel’s teaching continued long after his retirement, his impact extended beyond Heidelberg, into the Tiffin community and around the world.  He made many trips to China to represent Heidelberg during a summer teaching exchange with Tianjin Normal University.  He dearly loved sharing those teaching experiences from his China travels.  Yes he did!  In advance of my initial trip to TNU in fall 2010, I remember Mel coming to the President’s Office to tell me what to do, what not to do, and how to behave in China.  In classic lecture form, Mel held nothing back as he “coached” me assertively for that upcoming journey.
In addition to teaching, Mel served as an advisor to the Kappa Psi Omega Sorority and was an honorary member of the Excelsior Men’s Society.  He was a fixture in the dining hall and enjoyed conversing with students regularly.  He also was the assigned advisor for students who were on academic probation and took seriously his role in assisting them in establishing academic plans that would increase their chances for success.  Even into his retirement, he continued to tutor at-risk students on campus. 

Students who may have missed getting to know Mel after his retirement quickly learned of his ’Berg presence during Commencement rehearsals. For many years – with bullhorn in hand – he delighted in his role of barking marching orders to graduating students, faculty, and staff.  One particular point he never forgot to make was to tell students that as they walked across the stage to receive their diploma, they should walk to meet the President because he wasn’t going to come to them!  

I remember vividly and viscerally my first Commencement rehearsal in spring 2010.  As I was standing on that stage in Seiberling Gym while Mel barked these instructions to the graduating students, I had no idea who he was or why he was yelling.  But I enjoyed watching lots of shocked student faces as they listened attentively.  It was funny!  Then Mel put down the bullhorn and walked up onto the stage.  I froze.  He marched over to me, pointed to an imaginary “x” on the platform, and started yelling at me, “Mr. President, do not move off that “x” or move an inch toward the approaching students!  Hold their diploma and wait for them!  Do you understand?”  Well, by now lots of student eyeballs were popping out and many students were laughing too.  If I had velcro or glue, I would have used it on my shoes!  As Mel repeated this routine every year at rehearsal, I think that it took me three more years to enjoy that moment rather than fear it.

Additionally, he provided a major gift for the naming of a classroom in Gillmor Science Hall and was a significant contributor to The Society Challenge in 2015-16, a fund-raising challenge among our Greek organizations to raise money for France Hall.
It will surprise no one to know that Mel frequently tested his own math acuity as an advanced SODUKU enthusiast.  His family notes that he loved watching wrestling and sharing tales of growing up in his hometown of Big Stone City, South Dakota.  He was a Marine veteran of the Korean Conflict.
Mel is survived by three children, Dawn (Casler) Reamer, Jay Casler, and Carah Casler.  He also remained close to ‘Berg Biology Professor Dr. Pam Faber.  Pam’s thoughtful support and kindness toward Mel made an early and lasting impression on me.  When Mel was still able to drive his famous van around town and campus, Pam would usually join him for small and big events to ensure that he had what he wanted or needed.  In later years, Pam drove Mel around the town or our campus for events and errands.
No funeral services are planned at this time.  The Engle-Shook Funeral Home & Crematory is assisting the family with arrangements.  You can read Mel’s complete obituary here.  Mel had a special place in his heart for students who needed a financial boost.  If you would like to make a memorial contribution in Mel’s memory, you can designate it to Heidelberg’s General Student Scholarship Fund.

My lasting happy and warm memory of Mel comes from a repeated experience during his many years eating in Hoernemann Refectory while his health held up.  Like on Alumni Weekend, he would be holding court at the end of a dining table, energetically engaged in long and heated conversations with current or former students, faculty, or staff.  When you listened, you heard Mel giving strong advice and positive encouragement to everyone.  If I entered Hoernemann on a day with Mel present, whether I had food in hand or not, Mel would always say sternly (not barking), “Mr. President, come sit down here, I have something to tell you!”  I always took a seat and listened to him.
As we mourn Mel’s passing together as one community, let us keep alive the many “Mel stories” that are so near and dear to each of us.  We send our collective condolences to the many alumni whose lives he so profoundly touched.

RH sig

Rob Huntington

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