Anne Gorsline: Founding Mom of Computer Science Department
To be in the company of Anne Gorsline for a short time, you learn two undeniable things.
In her late 90s, she has a cracker-jack memory for recalling names, birthdays, and descriptive details that make you feel you are part of the experience she is describing.
The second is her great affection for her late husband, George, who served as the first head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science. He began his tenure as head in 1967, the initial pre-launch of the department, through 1973. The university officially recognizes 1970 as the launch of the department since undergraduate degrees were not approved until that time.
“He was full of beans,” shared Anne, of her husband’s lively personality. He always prescribed to an open-door policy and there would always be lines out the door to see him. He came to be known as “Dr. G” by his students; and she held the affectionate title of “Mrs. G”, and in some cases “Grandma G” by the some of the Ph.D. students’ children.
She also credits her husband for being a strong advocate for women, especially at a time when very few women were exploring computer science. “He figured if you have a brain, you should use it.”
Champions for students
He also was a champion of the “underdogs, those students who faced unique challenges, but who persevered and overcame obstacles to complete a degree in computer science. When George passed away in 1987, a number of grateful alumni established the George Gorsline Memorial Scholarship. True to George’s spirit, this scholarship is given each year to rising seniors who have shown significant improvement in his or her grade point average from freshman year through junior year, and who have overcome obstacles to become successful computer science majors.
In dedication to his students and the work he loved, George taught his last course with his oxygen tank with Anne in class to keep watch.
Anne and George truly complemented each other; as she embraced the students as her own hosting graduation parties and other celebratory events in the backyard. It is some of her fondest memories. “Everyone knew everyone’s children. We would have dinners all the time and picnics, sometimes even with a roasted pig.”
A festive backdrop—a church scavenger hunt—was a pivotal encounter for George and Anne. The two had knowns each other before as George’s sister was dating Anne’s brother, and had met at her future in-law’s home. George has just returned from serving three years in World War II and was determining his next steps. While taking classes at Penn State, Anne worked as a draft board clerk for the war training centers overseeing all the records by hand.
George decided to finish his studies at Virginia Tech in agronomy and geology/mineralogy, while his father was serving as a county agent in Blacksburg. George was undeterred in his affection for Anne. “I started getting letters once a week for a month and then almost every day.” She made a promise to finish school and completer her studies in art architecture and French, before marrying George.
The married couple would find their way back to Blacksburg in 1967, when George was hired as a faculty member. They settled into their home in walking distance to campus for George to walk to work every day, and likewise, Anne enjoyed being so close to campus and other amenities.
Around 4 in the afternoon each day, Anne would anticipate a phone call from George letting her know he was bringing someone home for dinner, often times a student. “I cannot tell you how many of those kids I fed,” she said. In addition to being the “Department Mom”, Anne and George had three children of their own: George Jr., Gary, and Suzanne.
Gary (’76 computer science) and Suzanne (’86 liberal arts) both attended Virginia Tech; while George Jr. attended Ohio University for both his undergraduate and advanced degrees.
Anne recalls the early days of the department as being rather rugged. “George started from scratch, first in a trailer down by the Duck Pond that had no heat in the winter.” Later, he would move operations to Lane Hall, then on the second floor of the police station and steam plant and ultimately in McBryde Hall after it was built in 1972.
George was a constant reader and wanted to stay current in the field. Anne recalls her husband being laughed at by many when he announced in a meeting that everyone would have a personal computer in their homes. Their son Gary was fascinated by his dad’s field and wrote his first program when he was 7 years old.
Meeting Grace Hopper
George’s vision captured the attention of the late Grace Hopper, a pioneer of computer programming and United States Navy rear admiral. Dubbed “Gracie” by George, she told him that he has the best computer set-up she had seen on one of her many visits to Blacksburg. Anne fondly remembers having Gracie at their home on numerous occasions, and how they were honored that she came at their invitation to speak at the student-run Association for Computing Machinery conference.
To this day, Anne still cooks for herself and lives at the same home she and George bought in 1967. She is still connected with many current and former members of the department, including a standing Kroger date on Tuesday with one of her dear friends Terese.
Computer science alumni Dean (‘78, M.S. ’85) and Nora (’79, M.S. ’86) Kirstein live in Blacksburg and work at their alma mater. They have vivid memories of George and Anne, who were very much parents to them while the department was taking shape. They have a special advantage of seeing Anne on a regular basis and sharing updates about classmates.
The Kirsteins, along with other friends of the department, established the Anne and George Gorsline Endowed Scholarship in Computer Science in 2000 when they learned that the ratio of women in the Department of Computer Science had dropped to 7 percent. This scholarship is available to any undergraduate above the freshman level, in good academic standing, with a declared major of computer science and a member in good standing of The Association for Women in Computing and/or the Society for Women Engineers.