Felita Waxman and her husband, Milt, an artificial intelligence and signal detection pioneer, made scholarship bequests to physics and applied mathematics
Felia “Felita” Sierota Waxman (A&S’49) of Los Angeles, wife of the late Milton J. Waxman (EPEN’49; MMath’50) died June 11, 2020. She was 91.
She was born June 6, 1929, in Navajoa, a city in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, and was just 13 when her parents decided to send her to Denver to continue her education. Juan and Rebeca De Sierota had moved to Mexico in the 1920s from their native Poland, having seen dark, early signs of anti-Semitism and the coming Holocaust.
“They were the only Jewish family in (Navajoa),” says Felita’s daughter, Leslie Waxman of Manhattan Beach, California.
Felita arrived in Colorado speaking only Spanish, and lived for a time with relatives, a rabbi, and at an orphanage for Jewish children. Following graduation from high school, she moved to Boulder to study political science at the University of Colorado. That’s where she met physics-engineering student Milt, who grew up in tiny Akron, a farm town on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, before moving to Denver, where his family owned and operated furniture stores.
Milt was so smitten with Felita that he sometimes waited outside her sorority house at night just to talk to her after she’d had a date with another man.
They both loved CU Boulder, except for one thing: the freezing winter winds that sometimes whistled down the canyons. Unlike many of their fellow students, Milt and Felita were happy to stay on campus.
“Hiking, skiing, fishing—my parents were interested in none of the above,” Leslie says. “He was absorbed by physics, and my mother was interested in being an activist.”
Milt shared Felita’s passion for justice and was far ahead of his time when, as membership chair, he sought to bring diversity to a Jewish fraternity. It soon became clear that the position was not for him.
“He had the ‘misguided’ view that anybody should be able to join,” says the couple’s son, Mark Waxman of San Diego.
After graduation, Milt announced to Felita that he was “going off to be a wild bachelor,” Leslie says. “She said, ‘Great, goodbye.’ I think he only lasted a week or maybe a month before he was back.”
Milt’s family didn’t see Felita as a “good match,” Leslie says. But when Milt died in 2017 at age 88, the couple had been married for more than 67 years.
After graduation from CU Boulder, Milt briefly sold shoes in remote Yuma, Colorado, before taking a job as a civilian engineer for the U.S. Army at the White Sands Proving Grounds near Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he worked on guided missile systems. Recognized as an early expert in artificial intelligence and signal detection, he later worked for Hughes Aircraft, TRW and Lucent Technology. Milt and Felita were friends with top scientists, including Ted Maiman, widely credited with inventing the laser.
CU provided a grounding for (Milt’s) long and successful career."
“He was there at the beginning . . . after growing up in a small farm town, coming to CU and getting into that space ahead of a lot of other people,” Mark says.
Milt also earned a PhD in communication theory from UCLA in 1968.
“Milt had a very distinguished career,” says Paul Beale, professor of physics at CU Boulder, who visited the Waxmans several times at their West Los Angeles home. “Both of them were fascinating to be with.”
Felita focused on raising the couple’s two children and became involved in numerous causes in Southern California, including the League of Women Voters Los Angeles chapter, the Catholic and Jewish Women’s Conference and University Women.
“She was very interested in politics and committed to social equality and justice,” Leslie says.
Milt and Felita, whom Beale describes as “proud CU folk,” chose to recognize their alma mater with substantial bequests to the physics and applied mathematics departments. The gifts will be used for undergraduate student scholarships, Beale says.
“CU provided a grounding for (Milt’s) long and successful career,” Mark says. “They were fond of Boulder and CU. They were successful and happy in life, and it all started there.”
Felita is survived by her daughter, Leslie Waxman, and her husband, Leo Stytle, of Manhattan Beach; son Mark Waxman and his wife, Paula, of San Diego; and grandchildren Sarah and Jake Waxman.