La Jolla’s Howard Young: More than a math tutor

Special to the Light

Howard Young, who died on July 31, was a numbers person, a math tutor by profession. He liked the logical, immutable notions of math and the analysis it demanded, and loved imparting that knowledge and intelligence to the hundreds of La Jolla and North County students he tutored over the years.

Inquisitive, curious and born with a fertile mind, he craved the “aha” moment -- the moment a complex issue suddenly made sense to him or his students, or when a clever idea was conceived. And he frequently repeated his professional mantra — “math is fun” — to skeptical teenagers who found math distasteful, even slipping written notes with that message onto their car dashboards and into their refrigerators when they weren’t looking.

But to his students, he was far more than a math tutor. He was a friend, a mentor, a confidante, and an advocate — a safe harbor of calm and perspective when his students encountered the rough patches that come with adolescence.

Young, a La Jolla resident for 18 years, died at home after a lengthy illness. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 12 at Ellen Browning Scripps Park, adjacent to the Cove.

“Howard didn’t tutor, but gave us the priceless gift of self-motivation, confidence and drive to solve the problem on our own,” said a four-year student, Danielle Gibbons, who graduated from The Bishop’s School in 2005. “He (went) far beyond math. He gave his students the confidence and dedication needed to succeed in life. It was the perfect combination with Howard — your best friend as your teacher.”

Molly Eldridge, who watched him tutor her younger brother and sister and, a generation later, her daughter, added: “Our whole family would look forward to the nights Howard would walk in. We would spend a few minutes catching up, but it was always right to the kids. They were his priority, and he was their advocate, their confidante, their friend. ‘Math tutor’ just doesn’t cut it as his title in life. He was so much more to our kids, to our family, to the community. When anyone talked about Howard, they couldn’t help but smile.“

“Howard’s students and their parents were like family to him,” said Peter Kay of Los Angeles, who met Howard when they were 7 and joined forces with him 15 years later to leave New York and stake out lives in California. “When he would talk to me about them, it was as though he was telling me about his children — he was so proud of their accomplishments and so upset if there were any challenges they were facing. He taught life, not math.”

But it was in his nominal role as math tutor that he became a fixture in La Jolla and the North County, where his math lessons, avuncular advice and philosophical discussions — known as meaning-of-life chats or, in his shorthand, the MOL — educated and entertained students and their families for nearly two decades.

The tools of his trade were simple: the desire and energy to share his wisdom; Jelly Belly candies to motivate and relax his students; mythical bonus points to reward them and brain-teasers to challenge them; unending patience; and empathy that flowed naturally across generations.

His methods could be unusual at times but they worked, largely because he tailored them to the needs of each student, rather than employ a one-size-fits-all regimen.

Ashley Geier of Rancho Santa Fe, who struggled with math and was one of five siblings to study with him, recalls that he often started their sessions by saying that during the week since their last meeting he had figured out something that might make it easier for her to grasp the concepts. Sometimes, his methods verged on the playful.

“He wanted you do to well on (math) tests, but the tests never measured what I actually knew,” Ashley recalled. “When I sat with Howard, I got it. When it came time to take my tests, that was a different story. So one day he cut out a picture of his face and told me to put it on the top of my desk, and while I was taking my test pretend like he was there sitting right next to me. I thought it was silly, but I did it. I think that was one of the best scores I had ever gotten on a math test, because I knew Howard was sitting right next to me, cheering me on.”

He made himself available well into the night as exams approached, coaching and reassuring his students. His involvement with them went beyond mathematics — he showed up at their softball games and tennis matches, and when he couldn’t make it in person, he checked in afterward by phone. Post-exam calls, to see how his students had fared, were the norm.

Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, Young moved to Southern California in 1979, shortly after graduating from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He lived in Los Angeles, Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach before making La Jolla his home. He was the youngest child and only son of Irwin and Adrienne Young, who now live in White Plains, N.Y.

Though he adopted Southern California as his home and loved it for the weather, scenery, and pace, Howard always maintained the pointed opinions, direct style and sharp wit of an East Coast native.

“He was a little slice of New York right here in San Diego,” said Jeanne Vaccari, who began studying with him shortly after she moved from Connecticut to San Diego. “Within minutes of meeting him I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. I always joked with him that he was the oldest kid I knew, because Howard really understood students. He truly was one of the most selfless and greatest individuals I have ever met.”

Kay, his lifelong friend, recalled that Howard credited his parents with much of his world view and multi-faceted personality. “He and his mother are both highly emotional, deeply caring people with a shared love of art and beauty,” Kay said. “He had enormous respect for his father’s intelligence and the way his witty sayings encapsulated important life lessons.”

Extremely cerebral and analytical, Young was also an accomplished athlete, playing varsity soccer for four years in college, playing competitive pickup ice hockey, finishing a number of marathons, and, in 1986, making his way into the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest time in a 5,000-meter race while juggling tennis balls. At the time he said that he had read in a newspaper that four billion people had been born over time and he wanted to be better at something — anything — than all four billion.

He was also an avid sports fan and often said one of his happiest moments was in Madison Square Garden in June 1994, when his beloved New York Rangers clinched their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. A tortured itinerary — Los Angeles to New York to Los Angeles to Vancouver to Los Angeles to New York — allowed him to balance his tutoring obligations and his longstanding vow to be present if the Rangers were ever in a position to become NHL champions.

The way in which he loved team sports as a participant and a fan — he always valued the assist far more than the goal, Kay noted — spoke volumes about the way he lived.

“He was the consummate team player,” Kay said. “He loved being with and working with his students so much that he often said he felt guilty taking money to do it.”

The families were more than happy to engage him.

“Before [we] even moved to La Jolla, we were informed that we should hire Howard Young, THE math tutor, no matter what,” said Jan Moorad, whose sons studied with him. “Get on his list is how it went. Despite A’s in math and kids who love and excelled in math, we were told Howard is not your usual tutor, but will ensure your kids know the why’s of math and instill a desire to excel and learn more.”

Cathy Geier of Rancho Santa Fe, mother of Ashley and the other four children who studied with Howard, added: “I will never forget the year he came and interviewed us to see if he wanted to tutor the Geier kids. The kids thought it was nuts that I pulled them off the beach in the middle of summer to meet a math tutor. He had them laughing and doing brain teasers in five minutes, and everyone loved him. We made the cut and the rest was history. My five kids would bargain every week for their time slot like it was gold.

She added: “I really think he made every parent and child think that they were his favorite.”