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A rare mind, taken too soon

Scott Zager

Until he got a whiteboard, Scott Zager wrote equations on his window in Everett House with black and blue magic markers. During his freshman year, he bought old books to fill his bare bookshelf — he liked the smell and the look of them. He windsurfed, fished and kayaked. He loved pizza.

And he was extraordinarily good at math.

"He was a kid that saw the whole world in math," said Erik Duhaime '10, a friend of Scott's. "The extent and breadth of his intellect was kind of remarkable."

Just three semesters after he arrived on College Hill in the fall of 2006, he got news no one ever wants to hear — a diagnosis of testicular cancer. He went home to Naperville, Ill. to undergo treatment, but the cancer was too advanced. He died on May 26, 2008 at age 19, almost two years to the day before he would have graduated with the class of 2010.

But even during his treatment —  through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant — Scott was always thinking about math and returning to Brown.

"Scott loved school," said his father, Dave Zager. "He always wanted to get back."
Throughout his treatment, Scott didn't want to take any pain medications because they limited his ability to think. "He would just do as much as he could without it," his father said. "He was trying to keep his life going."

For Scott, that meant finishing his finals from home and bringing his textbooks to the hospital so he could work on math problems. His mother, Gina Zager, said he made arrangements with the Brown Bookstore to get textbooks for classes he was not taking.

Scott loved good conversation as well as problem-solving, friends recalled, and in the hospital, one led to the other. When his doctors saw him studying math in the hospital, his father said, they frequently struck up long conversations with him. "They were kind of fascinated he was continuing to pursue that," his father said.

While he was at Brown, his friends said, Scott was quiet, using most of his time to figure out solutions to math and physics equations even when he was among friends. He was closest to the other students who lived on his freshman hall. They spent many weekend nights in his room as Scott enjoyed the conversations surrounding him.

On a particular night, Duhaime recalled, Scott sat at his desk doing something on his computer while people congregated. When everyone left, Duhaime asked Scott what he had been doing.

Scott "was making matrices of social interactions in the room," Duhaime said. "Everyone else was just having this superficial Friday night."

It was this "mathematical perception" of the world that drew people to Scott, Duhaime said. "He was someone who would have kept thinking and gotten other people to think in interesting ways."

"I'd say he was a bit of a celebrity on our unit" said Sam Wolfson '10.5, Scott's freshman-year roommate. "He definitely had a good head about him."

Scott and his friends won the competition for first pick in the housing lottery that year for their video about "a sub-par, misunderstood, birthday-suited a capella group" known as the "Skintones." Though the group originally planned to live together, Scott ultimately decided he wanted to live in a single in Minden, leading many of his friends to joke that they imagined him solving complicated equations in secret.

"I really think he had some sort of gift," Wolfson said. "I always saw him eventually as being some sort of quirky professor."

"I wish Brown had gotten to see more of him," said Samantha Scudder '10, who went to high school in Illinois with Scott before they both came to Brown. "It'll be a real shame to graduate without him."

Though it's hard to say what Scott would have done after graduation — "At the time, it was so far off," Scudder said — his friends and family agree it probably would have built on his mathematical talents.

"He had always been someone who enjoyed school," his father said. "We kid that he wanted to be a student for his life."


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