LR Osborn

University of Illinois math Professor Howard Osborn was a founding member of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra.

Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — Music and mathematics.

Art and science, both of them, all at once.

They captivated Howard Osborn, who spent his life in pursuit of both.

Mr. Osborn, a professor in the mathematics department at the UI and founding member of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, died in his sleep in late August.

He had long been retired from both pursuits — from the UI, he’d retired in 1993, and in 2007, he’d left the symphony.

But those who knew Mr. Osborn remember his lifelong devotions.

“All of his adult life was really a conflict between music and mathematics,” his wife, Jean, remembers. “He really did love music. He would drop everything when he heard something interesting on the radio and listen to it. It was hard to squeeze both worlds into his life.”

Mr. Osborn had grown up in the shadow of Northwestern University,in Evanston, where he played violin before switching to its larger counterpart, the viola.

During his middle and junior high school years, he studied the instrument at the university. He could have continued into college.

“At one point, Howard was a freshman at Princeton, and a music professor at Princeton suggested he go to Philadelphia and audition with William Primrose (a famous violist),” Jean said. “Mr. Primrose offered him a full scholarship to go to Curtis Institute of Philadelphia and Howard, and he was just finding out what a wonderful subject mathematics was, so he wrote back that he would stay with math.”

Choosing mathematics proved pivotal beyond Mr. Osborn’s career: When he moved to Stanford University to pursue a doctoral program in the subject, he also found his future wife.

“I was a sophomore at Stanford, and he was a beginning grad student, and he played ... in the university orchestra, and I played the cello,” Jean said. “I not only admired his viola playing, but I came to admire the man. I sometimes jokingly add to that that I married the wrong man, since he took me from California to Champaign.”

Married in 1951, the Osborns eventually moved to Champaign-Urbana, so Mr. Osborn could take a position teaching at the UI.

In the 1960s, they built a house reflective of the importance music held both to Jean and Mr. Osborn, with space dedicated specifically for playing chamber music included.

“We had a Steinway piano at one end — halfway between a concert grand and a baby grand — then people could play either with or in front of the piano, and in the rest of the room, they would set up the chairs,” Mr. Osborn’s son Steve said. “They often set up for concerts in town, and people would come over to get together in informal concerts and some formal concerts with great players.”

It was a regular highlight as their lives continued, both working at the UI, raising their four children, and fitting music in wherever they could.

“I was the child who took to music,” Steve said. “I played the viola. ... I played with him in many chamber groups, and I think he enjoyed that. My father was a very gentle person, but was also extremely accomplished, and he had a very specific idea of how to perform music. I remember attending several concerts with him where he wouldn’t applaud if he thought the performer hadn’t performed well. It was a silent protest.”

In 2007, Mr. Osborn left the Champaign-Urbana symphony. The onset of arthritis came as “blow,” Jean said, “because he couldn’t play.”

Even then, Mr. Osborn continue the pursuit of music.

“He decided he would learn to play the piano, but that didn’t last very long,” she said. “He was an older person who had trouble learning something; he was an expert at something, and it was hard for him to be a beginner.”

Although it’s easy to speak of Mr. Osborn’s accomplishments or pursuits in music or math, his family will also remember the other dimensions of his life and persona.

“He was a very honorable, principled, ethical person,” Steven said. “Old-fashioned in a lot of ways. He was a very passionate Democrat — he gave a lot of money to the Democratic Party, locally and nationally. He loved babies, and he loved dogs. He loved to laugh at movie theaters; when we would see a Peter Sellers movie, he would just be roaring with laughter.”

Like his twin pursuits, Mr. Osborn was “both scientific and artistic to the bone,” his son said.