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Thurman Jasper, math teacher and civic leader, dies at 97


Thurman M. Jasper’s life was one of service and helping others, first as a teacher, then as a soldier, then as a math professor at UT Arlington for over three decades. Retirement didn’t slow him down, nor did losing his eyesight. He took a lighthearted view of life and laughed often - a rich, infectious laugh which frequently led others to laugh along with him, particularly at one of the myriad jokes he had at the ready for any occasion.

He was a firsthand witness to much of the history of UT Arlington and the city of Arlington as well, and through his tireless efforts he helped shape and enrich that history.

Thurman Jasper as a student at NTAC
Thurman Jasper as a student at NTAC

“He had a long and wonderful legacy in Arlington,” his son Rick Jasper said. “He loved Arlington and UT Arlington. He dedicated his life to the University and the city.”

Mr. Jasper died Thursday, July 14 at age 97. Funeral services were held July 19 at Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, with interment at Moore Memorial Gardens in Arlington.

“He was just a genuinely nice man,” said his daughter, Denise Okerlund. “He was not only a teacher in the classroom but a life teacher as well. He taught us all so many wonderful lessons about life and how we can always give to others with our time and talents.”

Mr. Jasper was born Dec. 11, 1913 in the small East Texas town of Yantis. He graduated from Grapevine High School and enrolled at North Texas Agricultural College, forerunner of UT Arlington, in 1933. While at NTAC, he got a job with the National Youth Administration, a Depression era project of the Works Progress Administration. He made 30 cents an hour breaking up concrete and doing other manual labor on campus. He also worked as a ticket-taker at Arlington Downs, the fabled horse race track.

He graduated from NTAC - which was a two-year school at the time - in 1936 but continued taking classes and while doing so, took a big step toward his life’s calling. Mr. Jasper’s math mentor at NTAC, Richard Tanner, had to take sick leave and recommended that Mr. Jasper teach in his place while he was out. Administrators agreed, and Mr. Jasper’s long teaching career took seed with that temporary assignment.

He went on to Texas Tech, where he graduated with a B.S. in Education and Mathematics in 1938. With a recommendation from Tanner, he got a job teaching math at McCamey High School, near Odessa. While living in McCamey he also served as a volunteer fire fighter. When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Mr. Thurman joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. He went through Link Trainer School in 1942 and worked as a noncommissioned officer (NCO) in charge in the Link Trainer Department during the war, leaving the service in 1946.

Upon returning home to Texas, Mr. Jasper accepted a faculty position in the math department at NTAC in 1946, beginning a 35-year career at the institution which would become UT Arlington in 1967. He earned a master’s degree in education at Texas Tech in 1949. While at UT Arlington, he served as chairman of the committee which selected the design for UT Arlington’s first class ring, in 1959-60. He also chaired the Faculty Student Committee from 1946-64 and the Alumni Relations Committee from 1973-75, and he was the math department’s representative on the Student Placement Committee from 1973-75.

Mr. Jasper said he always considered himself a math teacher, rather than a mathematician. He also sought to create a comfort level among his students rather than the antagonism he said he experienced as a student.

“We have some teachers who try to make a student mad in order to teach them,” he told the Shorthorn in 1981. “I’d rather have your friendship and try to teach you. I have a better chance of teaching you if I can put you at ease.”

Mr. Jasper retired in 1981 but, far from slowing down, he continued his involvement in a host of charitable and professional organizations. Community service was always a significant part of his life, and he always had the best interests of Arlington and its citizens at heart. He was good friends with the late Tom Vandergriff, longtime Arlington mayor and city leader, with whom he worked on many civic initiatives.

“Tom Vandergriff was ‘Mr. Arlington,’ but you could definitely make an argument that Dad was second,” Rick Jasper said.

Mr. Jasper was among those who petitioned to have Arlington Memorial Hospital - the city’s first - built in the late 1950s. He served as president of the Lone Star Baseball League for over a decade beginning in 1970. Lone Star was a youth league created by a local Catholic church as a way to allow all kids to participate, regardless of ability. Mr. Jasper helped open the league up to kids citywide. He was a longtime member of the Arlington Kiwanis Club, serving as president and treasurer. He served on the board of directors of the local YMCA and was a longtime supporter of Special Olympics.

Thurman Jasper with daughter Denise in 1959
Thurman Jasper with daughter Denise in 1959

Mr. Jasper also stayed closely involved with his alma mater and longtime employer, serving on the board of directors of the UT Arlington Alumni Association and as its president and treasurer. He joined the UTA Retirees Club in 1985 and served as its president, vice president and treasurer as well. He was named to the club's Honor Roll in 1999 and was recipient of its Elwood Preiss Distinguished Retiree Service Award in 2007.

Mr. Jasper survived cancer but lost his left eye to the disease in 1974. Years later he lost sight in his other eye due to macular degeneration, but that merely spurred him to begin volunteering with the National Federation of the Blind. He also continued his volunteer work with many other organizations, including Arlington Charities, Mission Arlington and the Arlington Historical Society.

He received armfuls of awards and honors in his lifetime, including recognition for his community service by the Dallas Cowboys in 2006, when he was named runner-up for the Community Quarterback Award for his work with the National Federation of the Blind.

He loved to garden and could grow just about anything, from tomatoes to okra. He also loved baseball and closely followed the Texas Rangers, listening to games on radio after losing his eyesight. He rejoiced with other Rangers fans when the team finally won its first American League pennant last season. He was even able to attend a World Series game at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington in October.

He was a life member of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and also a member of the Texas Association of College Teachers and Phi Delta Kappa, a professional organization for educators.

Mr. Jasper was preceded in death by his wife of 40 years, Juanita Grimes Jasper, in 1992, and by his brother, Walter Jasper. Survivors include daughter, Denise Okerlund, and sons, Rick Jasper and David Jasper, all of Arlington, and Woodrow Jasper of High Springs, Fla.; grandchildren, Michael Jasper, Aimee and Kevin Crews, Leslie and Nick Edwards, Haley and Lance Murphy, Blake Jasper, Mick Jasper and Taft Jasper; and two great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations in Mr. Jasper's name may be made to Sundown Kiwanis, Mission Arlington, Special Olympics, National Federation of the Blind or to a charity of the donor's choice.