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Math whiz famous for funny numbers

If you are a child or even adult _ of the '50s or '60s, chances are that you remember Tom Lehrer.

Lehrer had a lot to say in those days about the world we were living in, and he said it in song. His songs were topical, satirical and humorous. And he played them and sang them to a wide audience.

Some of his work was controversial, such as Wernher Von Braun, The Vatican Rag. And then there was Fight Fiercely, Harvard (by this Harvard alumnus) and I Wanna Go Back to Dixie.

Lehrer did not set out to be an entertainer, nor a commentator on his times. Rather, he was a math whiz, and after graduating from public schools in New York City he went to Harvard to pursue a career in that field.

He earned a bachelor's and a master's degree there.

But he had taken piano lessons as a child, and his musical talent lay just below the surface.

So with the encouragement of friends, he soon was entertaining not only them but others in nightclubs and concert halls.

It was in 1953, while he was employed as a mathematician at Baird-Atomic Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., that he recorded his first album. A year later, the Tom Lehrer Song Book was published.

After two years in the Army (1955-57) he decided to take his show on the road. He performed in England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as in various U.S. cities.

In 1965, he wrote for the NBC television show, That Was the Week That Was, turning out such songs as The Dance of the Liberal Republicans and Whatever Became of Hubert? (Vice President Humphrey). Those songs and others were included in an album released that year with the same title as the TV show. In the meantime, Lehrer also was teaching. Beginning in 1962 he lectured at Harvard's Graduate School of Business Administration, then from 1963 to 1966 at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. He also lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during that period until 1971.

Since 1972 he has taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz, but he spends only the winter term there. The rest of the year he lives in Cambridge, Mass.

He no longer performs. "Last week was the 25th anniversary of my last performance," he said. "It was in Norway _ either in Bergen or Oslo, I'm not sure which."

He did continue doing benefits for a few years, but hasn't done any for the past 20 years.

At Santa Cruz, he teaches math and musical theater. He says some of his students are aware of his earlier career, others are not. "But I guess by the end of the term, most of them get told," he says.

Lehrer says he no longer has any desire to compose songs like the ones that brought him fame. "Nothing seems to be funny any more," he said. "I just get mad."

As for students today compared with those of the '50s and '60s, Lehrer says, "They're smart; they just don't know as much."

Lehrer, now 64, says even when he is alone with friends today, he seldom is asked to perform, "especially if they know me well. But it's no big deal; I can say "no' very easily."

He says he knows of no one today who does what he once did. "It's a different world," he said. "I threw out the bouquet, but nobody caught it. Some are writing parodies of popular songs, but nothing you could print."

Lehrer will be leaving Cambridge in December to return to California. Comparing the two states, Lehrer says, "Out there they call it laid back; here we call it lazy. And out there I hug people I don't even like. Here I like people I don't even hug."