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In Memory: Clarence “Skip” Ellis, 1943-2014

It is with sadness that CS @ ILLINOIS notes the passing of alumnus Clarence “Skip” Ellis (MS Math ’66, PhD ’69) on May 17. He was 71.

Clarence "Skip" Ellis | Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado Boulder

Ellis was the first African American to receive a PhD in computer science.

A native of Chicago, Ellis first became interested in and acquainted with computers as a teenager. He landed a job as a night watchman at a local insurance company that had recently purchased an expensive computer. During his free time, Ellis read the computer’s manuals and became a self-taught expert. One day, an important project had to be run, but there were no more punch cards (which were the only means of input at the time). Using what he had learned from the manuals, Ellis showed the company’s employees how to reuse old punch cards.

Ellis attended Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics. At Beloit, he helped set up the school’s first computer laboratory, a place where he spent many hours developing his interest in computers. At Illinois, Ellis continued to work on computer systems, in particular the hardware, software, and applications of ILLIAC IV supercomputer.

Over the course of his career, he worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories, IBM, Xerox, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, Los Alamos Scientific Labs, and Argonne National Lab.

Ellis was at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) from 1976 to 1984. There he headed a group that invented and developed Officetalk, the first office system to use icons and Ethernet to allow people to collaborate from a distance. Ellis continued to work in this area, and is considered one of the pioneers of the field of operational transformation, which examines functionality in collaborative systems. Operational transformation is now found in a host of computer applications, including Apache Wave and Google Docs.

He held teaching positions at Stanford University, the University of Texas, MIT, and Stevens Institute of Technology. He also taught in Taiwan under an AFIPS teaching fellowship. Ellis joined the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1992 and retired in 2010. He was an early leader in that university’s research on human-centered computing. Ellis regularly taught the introductory computer science course. He wanted to encourage students of all backgrounds to stretch their academic abilities and to consider a career in computer science. In a February 2002 issue of Black Issues in Higher Education, Ellis said he wanted to counter the approach some teachers early in his academic career took when they advised him to not take courses beyond the basic math level. “People put together an image of what I was supposed to be,” he recalled. “So I always tell my students to push.”

During the later years of his time at Colorado, and into his retirement, Ellis spent worked with higher education institutions in Africa. In particular, he maintained a close connection to Ashesi University in Ghana for several years. In 2013 Ellis received a Fulbright grant to support his educational work in Ghana.

Ellis was named a Fellow of ACM in 1998 in recognition of his leadership in ACM SIGOIS and his impact in the office information systems field.