Colleagues remember University of Colorado professor emeritus Clarence "Skip" Ellis for his warm presence and calm leadership style as a teacher and researcher.
Ellis died May 17 at the age of 71.
He is said to have been the first African American to earn a doctorate in computer science with his degree from the University of Illinois in 1969. He taught at CU off and on starting in 1972 and retired as a full professor in 2010.
Throughout his career, Ellis worked as a researcher and developer at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Bell Telephone Laboratories, IBM, Argonne National Lab and others.
Gary Nutt, who retired from CU's computer science department in 2010, was a long-time research collaborator with Ellis.
Nutt said Ellis grew up in a poor neighborhood on the south side of Chicago before attending Beloit College on scholarship in Wisconsin. He graduated in 1964 with a degree in math and physics before earning his doctorate at Illinois.
Nutt remembered Ellis as fiercely focused on his research, but also warm and friendly in a reserved way.
"He was a really smart guy and very driven, but very quiet and very kind," Nutt said.
In addition to teaching and research, Ellis sought to provide opportunities in computer science to underrepresented groups, such as African-American undergraduates at historically black colleges and universities.
He helped launch a summer program at CU to bring those undergraduate students to Boulder for research.
"The purpose of that was to try to get the pipeline to grad school filled with folks who might not otherwise do it if they don't have a mentor," said James Martin, computer science chairman.
Recently, Ellis received a Fulbright grant to teach at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana, this spring semester. He taught "World Simulation: Culture, Technology and Ethics," a course that examined how various governments around the world work with an emphasis on ethical, economic, social and political factors.
Professionally, colleagues said Ellis will be remembered for his work in computer-assisted collaborative work, or groupware.
This type of work gave birth to tools like Google Docs, which allows multiple people to alter one document at the same time, Martin said.
"He was a pioneer in this notion that multiple people could be collaborating on the same project at the same time, creating various kinds of artifacts," Martin said.
As a teacher, Martin said, Ellis preferred to teach undergraduates with little experience in computer science as a way of introducing them to the field.
"Left to its own devices, computing attracts a certain kind of a person, and if we don't make some kind of effort to broaden the appeal and reveal to people all the things you can do, they're not going to come to it naturally," Martin said.
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