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Robert Lovett Ashenhurst: 1929 - 2009


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Robert Lovett Ashenhurst

Photograph by Nancy Levner

Former Communications editor-in-chief Robert L. Ashenhurst, who died last October at age 80, served ACM for 35 years with dedication, humor, and panache, according to fellow ACM volunteers. M. Stuart Lynn (Communications editor Jan. 1969Mar. 1973) lauded him as a "distinguished computer scientist and dedicated editor." Much of Ashenhurst's thinking contributed to the current structure of ACM's journals, Transactions, SIG publications, and magazines, said Peter J. Denning (Communications editor Feb. 1983Sept. 1992), who remembered him as "unassuming and unflashy, and yet one of the most influential people of all time in shaping ACM."

At the time of his death, Ashenhurst was professor emeritus of applied mathematics at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. He joined ACM in 1956; just months before joining the University's faculty. Indeed, he would become the first chair of the University's Committee on Information Systems, a predecessor of its Department of Computer Science.

Ashenhurst's ACM contributions were plentiful. Lynn recalls that it was during his editorship that he and Ashenhurst launched the popular Forum department, where many lively editorial debates took form. As Forum's first editor (a position he would hold for 20 years) Ashenhurst channeled his considerable diplomatic talents. "I always had the feeling that Bob received his biggest kicks in handling letters which ranged from thoughtful to outrageous from gravely serious to downright funny," said Lynn. "No opinion was too trivial to be published but Bob always brought a helping hand to authorsand a sense of humor to sorting through the conflicts of hotly held opinions."

In those, days ACM elections for president were often contested Denning reminisced. "There were frequent petition candidates and nasty campaigns" he said, "but Bob remained steadfastly impartial and was about the only one that candidates from any faction trusted to give them a fair shake in the Forum."

Ashenhurst served as editor-in-chief of Communications from 19731983. During that time he helped steer the transition of Communications from a research publication to a "journal for all members." He created a hierarchy of reviews for ACM periodicalsrefereeing (peer review for research papers), formal reviewing (for articles that were not original research), reviewing (an informal, faster process for Communications articles), and unreviewed (for The Guide and SIG newsletters). He was also quick to recognize ACM's practitioner base advocating the creation of the Computing Practices section within Communications to present real-world applications and industry-based articles.

Former ACM President Adele Goldberg recalled a controversy erupting within the ACM Publications Board over whether the government should review publications in parallel with the ACM review process and without author approval. Goldberg argued that if an author had submitted a paper his or her employer had already cleared it in accord with any sponsor requirements. Many thought she was making too much of the issue, she said, but Ashenhurst fashioned a compromise: to advertise to authors the government's interest and willingness to review papers in advance of submitting. "That way, it was clearly up to the author, not us," Goldberg said, and it satisfied those at the ends of the political spectrum. When the U.S. government did black out sections of papers for a cryptography conference proceedings in the early 1980s, Goldberg remembered Ashenhurst smiling at her in recognition of a fight well fought.

Ashenhurst's magnanimity as an educator was also an ACM magnet. He was "enormously supportive, kind, and did not hold himself separate from students," said Goldberg, who was Ashenhurst's graduate student at the University of Chicago. When she expressed interest in education technology, for example, he not only suggested she spend a year at Stanford University, but also arranged for it. There she stayed, ultimately landing at Xerox PARC.

Ashenhurst was named an ACM Fellow in 1995 and in 1998 ACM recognized his years of service with its Outstanding Contribution to ACM Award. (See http://cacm.acm.org/news/49494-robert-l-ashenhurst-former-communications-editor-in-chief-dies/fulltext.)

Though soft-spoken and diplomatic, as he proved during his two decades as Council Parliamentarian, Ashenhurst also had a spontaneous, flamboyant side. Many remember his brilliant piano playing at après ACM Council parties. "He knew songs that seemed to stretch back to the dawn of light music," said Lynn. "Jim Adams (ACM's former Director of Membership) knew all the words but Bob knew all the notesand even when he didn't he somehow managed to find them on the spot."

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Author

Karen A. Frenkel is a freelance writer and editor in NYC specializing in science and technology

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Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1629175.1629188


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