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Attendees of the Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. Professional Memorial gather for a group photo after the final panel of the day.
March 26, 2023
Sam Williamson speaks during the fourth panel of the day.
Sam Williamson (left) speaks during Panel 4, moderated by Steve Weiss (second from left) and featuring Penny Rheingans (second from right), Amitabh Varshney (right), and Ivan Sutherland (on screen)

The Department of Computer Science held a professional memorial service for Department Founder Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. on March 4, 2023. Brooks was remembered in panel discussions featuring colleagues from throughout his long career in the computing industry and academia.

The event, held at the Friday Conference Center, featured five panel discussions, along with an introduction from Department Chair Samarjit Chakraborty and opening and closing excerpts from a 2019 interview of Brooks. Each panel discussion was centered around a different era of his career and moderated by a current or former UNC Computer Science faculty member with whom he worked closely. Attendees came from throughout the United States and even overseas and included his family, friends, former classmates and collaborators, university leadership, and current and former UNC CS personnel.

Gary Bishop speaks during Panel 5
Gary Bishop (center) speaks during Panel 5, which was moderated by Steve Pizer (left) and featured Benjamin Lok (second from left), Ronald Azuma (second from right), and Mary Whitton (right)

Brooks, who died on November 17, 2022 at the age of 91, founded the department in 1964 and spent 51 years as a faculty member with UNC Computer Science. He had major impacts on the fields of project management, computer architecture, computer graphics, and more. As a recipient of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) A.M. Turing Award, he was one of the most respected people in the field of computer science. He also had an immense impact on the development of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and the computer science departments at Duke University and North Carolina State University.

A group of in-person attendees chats with online attendees in a breakout room
During the lunch period, in-person attendees could chat with online attendees via breakout rooms

In addition to his accomplishments, his former students and colleagues at the event noted their respect for Brooks as a person. He was described by former students as ”caring,” as “gentle, but clear” and as even-tempered and patient through his students’ mistakes, understanding that it was part of the learning process. But while he was patient, he was also efficient. Gary Bishop, a retired professor and former doctoral advisee of Brooks, recalled that Brooks kept clocks on his desk to meticulously track the time he spent on various tasks, even to the point of clocking in and out for individual sentences of a conversation. Multiple panelists praised his ability to approach a problem and very quickly recognize the core issue and remedy it, whether he was debugging code or leading faculty meeting discussions.

Barbara Brooks LaDine, Nancy Brooks, and Lib Moore-Jones share a conversation during the lunch period
Barbara Brooks LaDine, Nancy Brooks, and Lib Moore-Jones share a conversation during the lunch period

Although the attendees came to Chapel Hill to celebrate Brooks, the event was also a celebration of the community that he built at UNC. Numerous UNC CS faculty members and alumni quoted aphorisms and advice (e.g., “speak to inform, not to impress” and “build one to throw away, then throw it away”) that they have passed on to their own students and co-workers. They cited lessons from his books and incidents where his example of leadership had guided their own approach. His impact at UNC will remain visible not only on the southern face of Brooks Building, but in the words and actions of those who knew him.

Photos from the event can be viewed online here. Full recordings of each panel are available in a YouTube playlist. The event bulletin includes a biography, event agenda and list of selected accomplishments.

The Department of Computer Science thanks everyone who attended, either in person or via Zoom, for helping us to remember and celebrate our founder and friend.