Founding UNC's computer science department was an experiment — but it paid off for Fred Brooks

brooks

Fred Brooks, a retired UNC professor, helped start the computer sciences program at UNC.

“I started regular teaching when I was in high school,” he said. “My senior year, one of the teachers came down with cancer mid-year and I got sworn in to teach geometry and trig because there wasn’t anyone else around to do it.”

Brooks started UNC’s computer science department and has worked with its faculty, staff and students since the 1960s.

“Fred founded the department in the mid 1960s, and it is probably very difficult to believe this, but at the time, the notion of forming a free-standing computer science department at a liberal arts university was unheard of,” Kevin Jeffay, chairperson of the Department of Computer Science, said.

“So for that reason we are actually the second oldest computer science department in the country. So it was actually a bit of an experiment, and obviously one that worked very well.”

Aside from founding the computer science department at UNC, Brooks also receieved the 1999 A. M. Turing Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the field of computer science.

“It’s the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in computer science, so he’s internationally recognized as one of the brilliant computer scientists of our time,” Jeffay said.

Despite his achievements, Jeffay said he is very humble.

“He’s very modest and generous, always giving the credit to his students and to his collaborators,” he said. “He’s a wonderful colleague.”

Gary Bishop, a professor in the department, said Brooks is more than just his accomplishments.

“He’s a giant, but he’s also a nice guy,” Bishop said.

Bishop said one thing that impressed him about Brooks was that he was never too busy to help students, colleagues or even strangers with whatever they needed.

“Here’s Fred Brooks, this giant. I mean — made IBM, adviser to presidents, all this stuff. And this lady is looking for directions, so he walks with her out to the street and down the street to show her where she needs to go,” Bishop said.

Of all the things Brooks did during his time at UNC, he said the relationships he’s made are his best memory.

“It’s really been the people — my colleagues and my students,” he said.

Brooks said deciding to come to UNC was a difficult decision because he already had a career with IBM.

“I had gone to IBM because I thought it was a place where you could change the world. And it was, and we did. But I’m a servant of Jesus Christ, and one of the questions when this type of opportunity comes along is where do you want me? And it became clear that this is where he wanted me. So that’s the short answer to a long story,” he said.

His career has been important to him, but Brooks said his experiences with his family have played a big role in his life.

Brooks said he and his children made many memories building a beach house together at Caswell Beach.

“That (was) a great adventure,” he said.

Although Brooks officially retired in 2015, Jeffay said he is still active in the department.

“He says ‘I didn’t retire. I just went off the payroll,’” Jeffay said.

Bishop said he has been blessed to work with Brooks for so many years.

“It’s been my honor to know him and to work with him,” Bishop said.

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