Before his first years of formal education, Jack Reinoehl counted the pages of department store catalogs, displaying his natural curiosity for math and numbers. Around the same time, he was given a book on birds and developed a fascination with them. In fourth grade, he began playing trombone.
An Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Hillsdale College, Reinoehl continues to travel around the world as a “birder,” identifying birds by their sounds and counting them. And though he no longer plays trombone, he attends school orchestra concerts almost religiously, familiar with nearly every song.
“He is one of the most likeable men you’ll ever meet,” Associate Professor of Mathematics David Murphy said. “He’s always happy, smiling, and ready with a joke. If you went in and chatted with him in his office or passed by, music was always playing. It contributed to and reinforced his happy personality. He was immersed in it.”
But music didn’t click with Reinoehl immediately. When, at the direction of his mother, he began piano in kindergarten, he didn’t take to it. But a few years later, he was able to take trombone lessons from a professor at Michigan State University. By taking lessons from a professional at a young age, Reinoehl developed a passion and skill for the instrument.
He began earnestly listening to classical music during college and joined the symphony during his graduate studies of abstract math at the University of California Berkeley, playing trombone there for nearly seven years.
“We did lots of professional repertoire,” Reinoehl said. “It was a totally unforgettable, valuable experience. We did stuff that most people would never get the chance to do.”
As a result he can identify not only the music the Hillsdale College orchestra plays, but can also hear any blunders in the performance.
“It nasty to say, but it’s not that hard,” he said. “Especially in 19th-century music, all of the chords are quite consonant, so one single wrong note turns a chord that’s very easy to listen to into something that really stands out. It’s fair to say I’m hyper sensitive to being out of tune.”
Despite not receiving formal training in music theory or history, he taught himself to easily identify symphonies and operas throughout history. He understands patterns, chords, and harmonies of the various genres and particularly appreciates finding exotic or emotional aspects in the music. Assistant Professor of Mathematics David Gaebler said Reinoehl was always willing to “talk shop” about music, explaining the intricate details of the second movement of some symphony.
“There is an undeniable connection between music and math, “Reinoehl said. “It is somewhat mysterious, but there’s a lot of abstract elements in music. You can express yourself personally in music, which you can’t really do in mathematics, so it’s a good compliment. You’ve got a much fuller life if you’re doing both of them,” Reinoehl said.
Associate Professor of Mathematics Samuel Webster noted that Reinoehl’s passion for mathematics is equaled by his love for birds. Reinoehl once took him on a birding trip and showed him a grove of cedar trees, home to several long-eared owls.
“Other times, we’d drive around the country in springtime, and he’d roll down the window and just by hearing bird sounds he could tell you what they were,” Webster said.
One year, Reinoehl attended an end-of-the-year picnic at the home of one of the math professors. After five minutes, Reinoehl had already discovered five different types of warblers on the property.
“I have three little ones, and it’s fun watching him interact with them,” Gaebler said. “He’ll do different bird calls and flap his wings. The kids just love it — he’s one of their favorite people.”
Reinoehl has traveled through the states as well as to South America, Africa, and East Asia as a part of his birding responsibilities, which include both counting birds and tabulating information.
“It ties in with an interest in music because that really is the best way to find birds: to hear their songs,” Reinoehl said. “Nothing was more exciting than to hear a song I didn’t recognize and chase down what was singing it, and hope it was a new bird. I can remember back in my neighborhood there was a Baltimore Oriole that had a song like a TV theme song.”
Though he no longer works as a math professor, Reinoehl returns to Hillsdale occasionally to read and work in his temporary office, attend orchestra concerts, and visit with the faculty and students.
“He’s always struck me as being kind, soft-spand thoughtful,” Associate Professor of Math Ryan Hutchinson said. “Those are three words that come into mind when I think about him.”