Computer Science and Life Wisdom: A 4D Dinner with Dr. Fred Brooks

UNC has an abundance of scholars who stand out within their respective fields.  It is common for students to have several “star-struck” moments during their freshman year when they first discover that their English professor is arguably the world’s leading Emily Dickinson scholar, or that their Classics professor is regularly featured on the History Channel.  As their collegiate careers go on, students’ shock tends to wear off as they grow more accustomed to interacting with professors of remarkable scholarly accomplishment.

On Monday, November 14th, we had the privilege of witnessing an exception to this trend as several students were noticeably awestruck to meet Dr. Fred Brooks at a NC Study Center 4D Dinner.  At the beginning of his career in the 1950s and 60s, Dr. Brooks worked for IBM as an architect of the Stretch and Harvest computers.  He was later a Project Manager for the development of IBM’s System/360 family of computers and OS/360 software and then went on to found the UNC Department of Computer Science, which he subsequently chaired for 20 years.  His work has earned him a National Medal of Technology as well as an A.M. Turing Award, and the UNC Computer Science building is named in his honor.

After everyone enjoyed a delicious family-style meal that evening, Dr. Brooks gave a thirty minute address that touched on his faith, his career trajectory, his marriage and on the experience of being a computer scientist in the early days when the field was just emerging.  He interspersed his talk with several bits of practical wisdom that he’s acquired in his 85 years of life thus far.  Students were particularly interested in Dr. Brooks’ reflections on the history of the Christian community at UNC from the 1960s to the present day.

After he finished speaking, Dr. Brooks spent 15 minutes taking questions from students.  This portion of the evening was particularly lively with students asking questions related to several different aspects of his talk.  The evening closed with prayer, and then several students stayed around afterwards to introduce themselves to Dr. Brooks and to ask him a further question or two.  With glimmers in their eye, three separate groups of students approached me asking if I would be willing to take their picture with Dr. Brooks.

There are very few people who have an institutional memory of UNC and a knowledge of the Christian community in Chapel Hill as rich and detailed as Dr. Brooks’.  We are grateful that he was willing to sacrifice a Monday evening to share his memories, his vocational experiences and his wisdom with a whole new generation of Tar Heels!