Radu Toma, retired Paly math teacher, dies at age 60

Radu Toma, a former Paly math teacher who retired at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, died on Feb. 13 at the age of 60.

Toma grew up in Romania in a family of teachers. His father was a political science teacher and the principal at Andrei Șaguna National College, one of the top secondary schools in the country, and his mother taught the Romanian language.

Eveline Baesu, a professor of engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said she appreciated her nearly 40-year-long friendship with Toma. She said they met in 1983 while studying at the University of Bucharest.

“He is the kind of guy that if you just say you need something, he’ll call you, and he’ll talk to you, and he’ll be funny about it,” she said. “Absolutely a model of friendship.”

Toma immigrated to the U.S. in 1992 as a political refugee following the Romanian Revolution. Baesu said Toma’s math education in Romania shaped his teaching style at Paly.

“He was tough because the teaching of mathematics in Romania was an extremely serious business and is taught way harder than it is here in the United States,” she said.

Baesu also said Toma preferred working with students directly, as opposed to speaking to parents, because his youthful past made it easy for him to connect with his students.

“He had a wild youth, and then when he came to the United States, responsibility finally hit him,” Baesu said. “He became a very responsible professor and mentor, precisely because he knew what it means to be young and reckless.”

However, Toma never lost his ability to have fun.

“He could put up a mean party. He really knew how to do that from the beginning to the end, and all of his parties were also about dancing,” Baesu said. “Some of the American parties are about standing up with a plate and talking, but no, that was not Radu.”

Beyond parties, Toma also loved to travel. Baesu said Toma had an “anthropological curiosity” about the places he would visit.

“Traveling for him was not just, ‘I’m going to go and see.’ No, he was researching it,” she said. “He would take tours in cultural immersion in that place. He would read about the culture, he would read about the places.”

Toma started working in Paly’s math department in 1994. In his 27 years of teaching, he left a lasting impression on all those he worked with, including math teacher and former department Instructional Leader Scott Friedland.

“He has been a friend and mentor to me the entire time I’ve been at Paly,” Friedland said. “I always felt like we were two sides of the same coin, and even when we didn’t agree, we could each fight really passionately for our position and then put it behind us.”

Friedland also said Toma had a unique ability to step up and be a leader.

“I lasted two years as (Instructional Leader) before I resigned –– he made it nine years,” Friedland said. “He also replaced a genuine legend at the department, so when nobody else wanted to, he stepped up, and he did it very well for three cycles.”

To Toma’s former students, one thing that still stands out was his sense of humor.

“Even during the pandemic, when everything was online, he tried to make jokes and keep the class lighthearted,” junior Andrew Xue said.

Senior Josh Butler, who had Toma as his geometry teacher his freshman year, said Toma helped pioneer his interest in math because Toma showed he believed in him. Their friendly relationship made him easy to joke with, Butler said.

“After our first test, he came up to me and said, ‘Wow, I guess football players can get A’s in math,’” he said.

Even after retiring, Toma continued to support his students. He helped tutor Butler for AP Calculus AB for much of the first semester, which Butler said was his favorite memory with Toma.

“I was previously struggling in the class, so we put a lot of work into (studying) the new chapter,” Butler said. “When I got my grade back and it was higher than any previous score, I showed him, and that was a special moment we shared.”

Toma’s impact extended across the world. He was involved with Unbound, a nonprofit sponsorship organization aiding education for families in poverty.

“He sponsored kids for the past 20 years and wanted to be more involved and visit those countries, contribute and give to charity to build schools,” Baesu said. “It was very, very dear to his heart.”

Toma’s dedication to his students is what Friedland said defined Toma as a teacher. Under his coaching, the Paly Math Club won first place in the COMAP International Mathematical Modeling Challenge in 2015 and the quadrennial International Congress of Mathematical Education in 2016.

“He was an incredible mathematician that also had a real passion for communicating with students and inspiring them to pursue mathematics at the highest level,” Friedland said. “Remembering the extent to which he dedicated his life to helping students and teachers is something I’ll hold on to forever.”

Toma’s memorial service took place on March 4 at Alta Mesa Funeral Home and Chapel.