I am asked a lot of questions (more than you can imagine, really) but this is the answer to a question that no one has ever asked. And in all honesty, I hadn’t thought to ask it myself. This was an accident. It began with a photograph, one that I’ve looked at a minimum of five dozen times, of the Math Department in 1927. Always, I was focused on the man in the dark suit, standing right in the middle of the picture. His name was Szolem Mandelbrojt and he was an important part of the history of Jews at Rice, which is one of my main preoccupations:
Last Thursday night, though, I was idly flipping through images on my laptop with no ideas already taking up space in my head. When I lit on it this time I was dumbstruck: where did that girl come from?
I had to dig hard but I found her. Her name is May Hickey. She was born in Lumberton, Mississippi to a family of small farmers but her father moved the family to Texas, first to the Dallas area and then to Houston, at least in part to take advantage of the free college education provided by the Rice Institute. All seven Hickey siblings attended Rice while their father, who hadn’t gone to high school, worked as a laborer for the railroad and an oil refinery. May was valedictorian of her class at Houston Heights High School and her principal made a prediction on the back of her Rice application:
He was right. When I found her records I was astonished. She was a brilliant student, her transcript covered in 1s. In the days before grade inflation, at a school where they weren’t particularly concerned about anything but performance, I’d never seen anything like it before. As an undergraduate she was an assistant in the Math department, an assistant in the English Department, and an assistant in the German Department. Two years in a row she earned the Graham Baker Award for the best student at Rice. After graduation she was appointed to a fellowship in the Math Department, teaching undergraduates while earning a masters in Math and Physics in 1927, and then her Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1929:
After her year of research in Germany Dr. Hickey returned to Mississippi where she was professor of mathematics at Delta State until 1938. That year she married Alfred Maria, who had been a Fellow in the Rice math department and her teacher when she was an undergraduate. In 1939 both Marias became faculty members at Brooklyn College. I’m very grateful to Colleen Bradley-Sanders at the Brooklyn College Archives for finding this photo of May Hickey Maria during her years there:
(George L. Bing Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections and Archives).
Alfred Maria died in 1964 and May continued teaching at Brooklyn College until her retirement in 1975. She passed away in Austin in 2001 at the age of 96.