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Donald B. Gillies Chair in Computer Science

Donald Gillies
Donald Gillies

The Donald B. Gillies Chair in Computer Science honors the late Professor Gillies (1928-1975), who was a member of the faculty in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1956 to 1975. Gillies earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto in Canada in 1949 and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1953. At Princeton, Gillies worked as a research assistant to John Von Neumann, a pioneer of the modern digital computer. He was among the first mathematicians to become involved in the computer field, helping to calculate the first Sputnik orbit and later discovering three new prime numbers in the course of checking out ILLIAC II.

Although a lifelong stutter affected his class lectures, Gillies was an inspiration to his students. Long before the personal computer made "hands-on" computer experience commonplace, he recognized the need for students to have this opportunity and implemented several systems to provide it. For example, during a family vacation to Canada, he picked up a newly developed Fortran compiler from the University of Waterloo so it could be implemented at Illinois, his son Don (MS CS '90, PhD CS '93) recalled. With its quick turnaround capabilities, this compiler enabled the university to offer programming classes to non-CS students for the first time.

Throughout his work and teaching, Gillies stressed the importance of the ethical use of computing machines in contemporary society. He was dedicated to the honest uses of technology, environmentally concerned, a man of wit, vigor, and understanding, Gillies challenged and stimulated those who knew him.

Lawrence (“Larry”) White established the Donald B. Gillies Endowed Faculty Positions in Computer Science Fund in 1999 with a gift of $2 million. White launched his programming career almost as soon as he got to college. While working on his degrees at Illinois, he spent four years as a student programmer on the PLATO project. White graduated with a master’s degree in computer science in 1976 after having earned his bachelor’s degree in math and computer science the previous year. After graduation, White stayed on at Illinois, eventually joining NCSA as a development manager. In the 1990s, he moved to Microsoft, joining the Exchange Server and SQL Server groups.

“Professor Gillies demonstrated tremendous enthusiasm for everything related to computers and a willingness to lead us, his students, into his world,” said White. “He acted like sharing his breadth of knowledge was a delight. Even though I’ve forgotten everything that was on the tests, I’ve never forgotten what it means to be a good teacher.”