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In Memoriam: Clarence “skip” Ellis 1943-2014

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Clarence 'Skip' Ellis, during a 2012 lecture at Ashesi University.

Clarence "Skip" Ellis, the first African-American man to earn a Ph.D. in computer science, died May 17 at age 71.

Credit: Ashesi University College

Clarence "Skip" Ellis, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the first African-American man to earn a Ph.D. in computer science, died unexpectedly May 17 at age 71, shortly after returning to Colorado from a semester of teaching at Ashesi University in Ghana.

Chicago-born Ellis received a scholarship to Beloit College in 1960; he graduated in 1964 with a B.S. degree, having double-majored in math and physics. He then attended the University of Illinois, where he worked on hardware, software, and applications of the Illiac 4 Supercomputer; he received a Ph.D. in computer science from that institution in 1969.

He continued his work on supercomputers at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Ellis also worked as researcher and developer at IBM, Xerox (where he helped to develop the icon-based graphical user interface), Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory.

His academic experience includes teaching at Stanford University, the University of Texas, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute of Technology, and in Taiwan under an American Federation of Information Processing Societies overseas teaching fellowship, as well as at Ashesi University, where he was Ashesi Fulbright Professor.

Said Gary Nutt, also professor emeritus in computer science at the University of Colorado, "By 1972, Ellis was a faculty member at the University of Colorado, focusing on operating systems theory. By the end of the decade he was working at Xerox PARC on the problem of applying distributed systems to office information systems. During his time at PARC, and then MCC, he became a leader in the formation of interdisciplinary computer-supported collaborative work as it is known today. He was elected as a Fellow of the ACM in 1997 based on this work."

Ellis met his first wife, Anna Yang, during his college years, and together they had two children, Delilah and Damon. Anna passed away in 2001, and Ellis eventually remarried, to Lynn St. Pierre of Boulder, with whom he traveled the world for several years, visiting parts of India, Europe, and Africa. As a result of their travels, Ellis developed a passion for teaching in developing countries.

Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing dean Robert B. Schnabel said that when he thinks of Ellis, the qualities that come to mind are "intelligent, enthusiastic, very kind and caring. Particularly in his later years, he became very dedicated to his work in Africa, and he was the first to instigate the Colorado computer science department's relationships with historically black colleges in the US. He also was a pioneer in the area of computer-supported cooperative work."

Schnabel said Ellis "clearly was very talented and dedicated to accomplish what he did, but I doubt that many people who knew him even knew his full background and how much he overcame to succeed."

A memorial service was scheduled for Thursday, May 22, at 4 p.m. at Crist Mortuary, 3395 Penrose Place, Boulder, CO 80301. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to "Education Worldwide," or to Ashesi University in Ghana.


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