SIAM News Blog

Obituary: Richard Homer Franke

By Evan Franke

Richard Homer Franke, 1937-2023. Photo courtesy of Mountain Meadows – Ashland.
Richard Homer Franke, professor emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), passed away on December 16, 2023, at the age of 86. He was an expert in the field of numerical analysis, with a specialty in surface approximation.

Richard—known as Dick to friends, family, and colleagues—was born in 1937 at his family’s home on the Kansas prairie, outside of the small farming town of Herndon, Kan. He enjoyed a normal childhood in rural Kansas; he went to school, worked on the farm, raised animals for 4-H, played sports, and got into (and out of) trouble with his four brothers — much to the chagrin of his older sister. As a child, Dick demonstrated a unique aptitude for applied science and engineering. He figured out how to improve several of his family’s farm tools and, along with a friend, even pursued his own advanced math study in high school with the help of a teacher.

Dick’s family valued and encouraged education. As such, Dick graduated from Fort Hays State University in 1959 with a B.S. in mathematics and physics; he then earned an M.S. in mathematics from the University of Utah in 1961. Dick began his professional career at the Boeing Company: first in Wichita, Kan., as part of an effort to improve the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, and then in Huntsville, Ala., and New Orleans, La., as a member of the team that developed the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. His responsibilities included conducting fuel calculations and writing programs for fuel flow.

After marrying Amelia Franklin in 1963, Dick took a break from Boeing to travel in Europe. When he returned to the U.S. in 1964, he accepted a job at Kaman Nuclear in Colorado Springs, Colo. In 1966, Dick enrolled at the University of Utah to pursue his Ph.D. in mathematics under the direction of Robert Barnhill. He received his degree in 1970 after successfully defending his thesis, titled “Orthogonal Polynomials and Approximate Multiple Integration” [1].

That same year, Dick accepted a position as an assistant professor of mathematics at NPS. While at the school, he continued his work in what one outside observer termed “some very rarefied and abstruse branch” of mathematics. These research efforts had a tremendous impact on his field; in fact, his 1982 paper titled “Scattered Data Interpolation: Tests of Some Methods” has been cited more than 3,300 times [2]. Dick frequently collaborated with Gregory Nielsen and Hans Hagen and co-wrote “Scattered Data Interpolation: Radial Basis and Other Methods” with Suresh Lodha, which appeared in the Handbook of Computer Aided Geometric Design [3]. Furthermore, Franke's bivariate test function is one of only two MATLAB tools to be named after their creators. 

During his stint at NPS, Dick took leave several times to teach offsite, conduct research, and perform other scientific services. He served as a visiting professor at the University of Utah in 1977 and at Drexel University from 1980 to 1981. From 1988 to 1989, he was a liaison scientist at the Office of Naval Research’s European Office in London. When reflecting on his service as chairman of the Department of Mathematics at NPS—a position he held from 1992 to 1996—Dick was proud to have hired highly qualified and creative professors who helped move the department into the 21st century. He retired in 2001 after more than 30 years of government service and received the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award, which recognizes the distinguished contributions of civilian employees in the U.S. Navy.

Dick’s first major project after retirement was the restoration of a 1964 Dodge Dart convertible; he celebrated his 66th birthday in 2003 by taking the car on an epic road trip, embarking on Route 50 and returning on Route 66. Prior to the trip, he appeared on the National Public Radio show Car Talk (Episode 1711). He then recorded the journey in an online diary with photos and stories of his adventures. 

Dick pursued many lifelong interests, including (but not limited to) photography, aviation, astronomy, space exploration and rocketry, automotive mechanics, carpentry, weather, birding, vegetable gardening, and global travel. He also hosted two foreign exchange students and was a longtime member of both SIAM and Sigma Xi. Dick is survived by his wife, Amelia; their three children (Evan, Tanna, and Hailey); and three grandchildren (Ian, Fiona, and Sulwen). He maintained personal relationships with friends, colleagues, and especially family — including his siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins.

Dick was incredibly personable, with a great sense of humor and an even greater kindness and generosity. He will be deeply missed by everyone who knew him.

[1] Franke, R. (1971). Orthogonal polynomials and approximate multiple integration. SIAM J. Numer. Anal., 8(4), 757-766.
[2] Franke, R. (1982). Scattered data interpolation: Tests of some methods. Math. Comput., 38(157), 181-200.
[3] Lodha, S.K., & Franke, R. (2002). Scattered data interpolation: Radial basis and other methods. In G. Farin, J. Hoschek, & M.-S. Kim (Eds.), Handbook of computer aided geometric design (pp. 389-404). New York, NY: Elsevier.

Evan Franke is Richard Homer Franke’s son. He has served in U.S. government agencies for more than 25 years and is currently an attorney in the Department of Homeland Security. Franke is also an adjunct faculty member in the College of Professional Studies at George Washington University. 
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