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Looking Back 50 Years

Gerald Spittle ('73, '76)

I entered Virginia Tech as a math major in the fall of 1969. After I took my first computer science class, FORTRAN programming with Bruce Klein, in winter of '70 I was hooked. I remember thinking the math curriculum was too rigid and I might transfer into the newly formed  Department of Computer Science. That spring, I climbed the rickety wooden stairs to the computer science offices located above the Virginia Tech police station. In the first office was George Gorsline, feet propped on the desk, unlit cigar in his mouth. "Hi, I'm George. What can I do for you?" I replied, "I'm thinking of transferring out of the math department, but I have a few questions."

Math requires two years of English and two years of a foreign language (I was barely passing German). George told me that the department only required one year of English and no foreign language. I told him I still wanted to take all the math courses required for a math major. He responded, "No problem, you can take all the math you want. What else?" I knew I was in the right place. I think there were five faculty and about eight students that year. George asked the students to help develop the curriculum. And several years later, we were asked again to help develop the master's degree. George and Anne Gorsline were second parents to all of us in those early years.

I never left Virginia Tech. I worked as a programmer while completing my  master's and worked my way up to professional faculty and director of information technology for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. I also briefly worked for the Virginia Cooperative Extension and retired in 2002. My wife Tina and I live on our farm in Floyd County.

Paul Thorn ('76)

punch cards
A stack of the punch cards that Dr. Gorsline put through an IBM 029 keypunch station.

Dr. George Gorsline, the first department head of the Department of Computer Science, was quirky but made my experience in a few words, such fun. He smoked like a chimney, but always had time to share a few (salty) words of encouragement.

Punch cards in the 1970s was the rule of storing data for undergraduate computer science students. Very few of us had access to an IBM selectric typewriter as a Time Sharing Option (TSO) terminal and even fewer of the new and rare Video Display Terminal (VDT).

For charity purposes, there was an annual "auction" of every computer science professor's time for one hour. I was fortunate enough to win George's one-hour time and put him to work punching up my data cards at an IBM 029 keypunch station in a busy student accessible location, along with many other stations. Imagine the shock and surprise of lowly freshman and other students seeing the lordly department head diligently toiling away, sometimes cursing under breath, when he did a mis-punch or a card jammed punching up a stack of several hundred cards. We all had card saws, remember them?

Crashed disk
A typical 1970's 14" single hard disk after a head "crash".

These single removable disks stored only 5 MB early on, and up to 80MB several years later. Some drives had multiple "platters" with higher storage capacity. They cost $80-$100 each, but the drives were $25k+ each. I once heard that one will never forget the fatal, painful, screeching sound of the read/write head crashing and contacting the oxide disk surface. This gouged grooves into the aluminum media, destroying all of the data on the disk beyond recovery. The next thought was the hope and prayer that the debris didn't contaminate the fixed disk in the same drive and that the tape or disk backup was good. And that after the heads were replaced and aligned, the other removable disks could be read on that drive.

I heard a story/fable that a much larger disk (maybe 25") got loose in a disk drive connected to the IBM mainframe in the back of Burruss Hall. It spun through the side of the drive and flew into a cinder block wall like a Frisbee and stuck there.

Robin R. Meador ('84)

My first experience with reusable code was when I would take IBM punch cards from an older assignment and reuse them in a current assignment. This helped reduce having to stand in line to punch new cards.

Dean Compher ('85)

On the first day of winter quarter in 1982, all of the freshmen computer science students had one class. Dr. Gorsline walked in, smoking a cigarette, and announces, "The business college is a lot bigger this quarter." At that time, computer science and engineering departments were notorious for weeding out freshmen students.

Joshua Mindel ('86)

Ed Fox was a relatively new professor when he was advisor. It's great to see his long tenure at the university!

Rob Moore ('87)

Punch cards my freshman year. VAX/VMS my sophomore year. PCs my junior and senior years. What a time for change!

Joerg Weimar ('91)

As a teaching assistant in my first semester (1989) I taught the lab for assembly language and assemblers (class taught by then freshly appointed Cal Ribbens). Not being a native speaker, and without any experience in teaching, this was quite a challenge even though I had extensive experience in programming in assembly language.

After a few weeks, Verna Schütz, teaching assistant coordinator, visited my class. I think she was satisfied with my teaching, but the students gave her interesting feedback. (I had mispronounced the word 'comment' to make it sound like 'commend,' and since I put so much emphasis on the importance, the students apparently were very confused). Nevertheless, this TA job laid a very good basis for my career, as I am now a full professor for computer science in Germany. I still enjoy teaching a class in English every once in a while.

Kristin Gentry McNaron ('93)

Alumna Kristin Gentry McNaron on a Mac II
Here I'm on a Mac II running Unix. I look like I might have been doing real work here, but it saw a lot of Tetris my freshman year.

John Blackmore ('96)

I was a freshman in Dr. Barnette’s introduction to computer science section, around 1992, and one day I elected to sit at the front of the classroom, adjacent to an archaic technology for presenting called an ‘overhead projector.' It was on a metal cart with wheels, probably because there weren’t enough to go around.

At some point during the lecture, the air became thin, my eyes became heavy, and my Northern ears were not used to the Southern twang in Dr. Barnette’s voice. As I nodded off, I woke up with a start and kicked the metal cart with a loud clang, sending the image off the screen to the chalkboard. Undeterred, Dr. Barnette proceeded with his lecture, while mortified, I repositioned the cart and slid the image back to the screen. I learned a lot from Dr. Barnette, but I believe that was the last time I sat at the front of the class.

I remember Dr. Ribbens, not only for his insights into operating systems, but more for his prowess on the volleyball court. I think a rematch is overdue.

I would also like to remember Sandy Birch, who made it her personal mission to make sure that each and every one of us had a bright future ahead. Thank you, Sandy, and everyone in the department. It’s been a wild ride, and I never forgot where it started.

Peter DePasquale ('00, '03)

Peter DePasquale at his graduation in May 2003.
Graduation day in May 2003 for my PhD.

Megan Olsen ('05)

The first two photos are from the Association of Women in Computing (AWC) sponsored business dining etiquette dinner in fall 2004 at a local restaurant, featuring a guest speaker from industry. The other two images are from the 2005 Women in Computing Day hosted by AWC. Each year at Women in Computing Day, we'd run multiple workshops for middle school girls. The girls would get to attend multiple workshops throughout the day.

Kevin Denny II ('07)

Kevin on a sailing trip with friends from an internship
A sailing trip on the Annapolis River with my Summer 2006 internship crew at ManTech.

I loved that the Department of Computer Science had its own career fair for just the computer science students. Because of my experience with other career fairs during the time, I decided I would only go to the computer science one. They were much more intimate. It was from there that I landed a paid internship with ManTech Information Systems &Technology in  summer 2006. I remained with them up until I graduated the following year. That experience was the boost I needed to land my first job with IBM's public sector! I also realized how smart it was to take the technical writing course as my elective because so many engineers lack this skillset.