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Robert Morris ’65

February 6, 2021, at home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Robert grew up in Little Silver, New Jersey, adjacent to Fort Monmouth, which gained notoriety during the Red Scare of the early ’50s. Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked the army’s Signal Corps Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, claiming that the Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg had created a spy ring at the post and that the Communist Party had organized a special unit to infiltrate it. As a result of McCarthy’s allegations, 42 federal employees were labeled security risks and suspended by the army in 1953.

“My family and the whole community were pretty severely traumatized by the McCarthy goings-on that affected that installation rather directly,” Bob said. “In high school, what I was taught was—you don’t ask questions.  Inquiry is what you’re not supposed to do. So, to get to Reed, where 50 teachers are telling me just the opposite—that the right way to behave is to always ask questions, about everything, and if there’s something you don’t know about, that’s more reason to ask questions, that was a revelation and a launch pad which had an interesting consequence a couple years later.”

He came to Reed undecided as to whether to major in physics or math. During his junior year, Bob was an exchange student at Keele University in Great Britain. A previous student at the university had warned him that it would be best to check ahead of time  with the professors at Keele to see if it would be all right to ask questions in class—the norm at the time was to just take notes. But Robert found his professors at Keele were delighted to have a student who asked questions.

“When I came back to Reed,” he said, “I was back in a familiar atmosphere where asking questions was the norm, and it became a permanent way of life.”

He wrote his thesis, “On Finite P-Groups with Maximal Automorphism Groups,” with Prof. Thomas C. Brown [math 1964–65]. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Army. He earned both a master’s and a PhD in math at Cornell and spent 10 years as an algebraist before drifting toward computer science and software engineering.

As a young mathematician, Bob spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he began to write software for algebraic geometry problems he was working on. In time, the software became more interesting to him than the algebra, and by 1978 he had joined the math department at the University of Massachusetts Boston to help start a computer science program, ultimately with a focus in software engineering in a department split off from math. He taught software engineering, launched a number of students into well-known companies, and did research and software development in digital typography and human vision as applied to low-vision reading from computer displays. He was the director of the Software Engineering Research Laboratory at UMass Boston and led the Biodiversity Informatics Lab.

Bob traveled to Costa Rica on an NSF grant to work with biologists building software for identifying plants and animals both in the wild and in the lab. He also worked at Houdry Labs, Air Products Corp., and Interleaf.

An avid outdoorsman, he enjoyed skiing, fishing, hunting, hang gliding, windsurfing, building and flying his ultralight aircraft, sailing, and especially racing Hobie Cat catamarans. Bob is survived by his wife, Celia Hansen Morris ’64; his daughters, Rachel and Jennifer; and his brother, Michael D. Morris ’60. 

Bob and Celia created the DCR Opportunity Fund (DCR stands for “Doctors Celia and Robert”) to support student opportunities at Reed, with a preference for students working in the non-profit sector.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2021

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