Remembering Department Head, Faculty Member Charles William 'Bill' Gear


Charles William Gear, widely known as Bill, a prominent computer scientist particularly known for his work in numerical analysis, died in Princeton, New Jersey, on March 15 at the age of 87.

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Charles William Gear, widely known as Bill, a prominent computer scientist particularly known for his work in numerical analysis, died in Princeton, New Jersey, on March 15 at the age of 87.

C. William Gear
C. William Gear

Illinois CS Colleagues, Former Student Provide Further Perspective on Bill Gear 

“Bill, or more formally C. William Gear, was an outstanding computer scientist and contributed to many areas of research including numerical integration of differential equations, automatic problem-solving systems, simulation and network analysis, computer graphics and vision. As an educator, he published several books including the early and very popular ‘Introduction to Computer Organization and Programming.’ However, many of the computer science and numerical analysis community will remember him for his leadership as head of the Computer Science department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, as president of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), his involvement in many professional societies, and his warm heart, friendship, and good advice.”

Roy H. Campbell, Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Professor Emeritus

"Bill Gear was a pivotal figure for CS at Illinois in a number of ways. First, Bill was a true computer scientist (due to the youth of the field, the previous heads had been physicists), and one with unusual breadth, his expertise encompassing everything from computer architecture and operating systems to numerical analysis. Also, Bill had a high national and international profile, as an educator and textbook author, administrator, and above all as a pioneering researcher in numerical methods for solving stiff ordinary differential equations. Finally, Bill established an administrative structure for the department that would scale to accommodate the enormous growth in numbers of both faculty and students that we see today.”    

- Michael T. Heath, Professor and Fulton Watson Copp Chair Emeritus 

“I was awestruck when I joined the CS department as a faculty in 1985. Bill Gear, who had become the department head just a couple of months prior to my arrival, was the person whose book I learned much of the computer science basics from – ‘Computer Organization and Programming.’ Of course, he was a part of the pioneering and multi-talented people who made up the early computer science generation at Illinois, especially during the initial Illiac days. As a department head, his leadership style was consultative. He always took his own decisions, but everyone felt they had been properly consulted. Bill has left an indelible mark on our department.”

- Laxmikant “Sanjay” Kale, Research Professor & Paul and Cynthia Saylor Professor Emeritus

“C. William Gear is a towering figure in computer science. During his extraordinarily productive career of over 60 years, he made numerous and significant research contributions to numerical computing and, early in his career, to compiler technology. His influential research, together with his equally influential contributions to education in the form of widely adopted textbooks, made him one of the most visible computer scientists of his time. We will miss and gratefully remember him as one of the founders of the Department of Computer Science, an admired department head, and one of the main builders of the excellence and reputation of our department.”

- David Padua, Donald Biggar Willett Professor Emeritus in Engineering

"Bill was an amazing mentor who gently introduced me to the joys of research and to the research world, in which he was much admired not only for his highly impactful research contributions but also for his superb judgement and excellent leadership."

- Linda Petzold, Mehrabian Distinguished Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara

Born February 1, 1935 to working-class parents in London, he studied at Cambridge University on a full scholarship. There, he “read” mathematics, but if you believe his own stories, he apparently spent most of his time in a scull, rowing on the Cam. Upon graduation in 1956, with Fulbright and Johnson Foundation support, he headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to learn about computers, still in the early stages of development. Initially intending to stay only for a year, he remained to earn a mathematics Ph.D. in 1960. Upon completing his degree, he went to work at IBM British Laboratories in Hursley.

Two years later, he returned to the University of Illinois, where he rose through the faculty ranks from assistant professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics to full professor in 1969 and, in 1985, head of the computer science department, as well as professor of Computer Science, Applied Mathematics, and Electrical and Computer Engineering. Beginning in 1990, Gear also continued to serve Illinois CS as professor emeritus. Three departmental awards are also set up in his honor: the C.W. Gear Outstanding Undergraduate Award, C.W. Gear Outstanding Graduate Award, and C.W. Gear Outstanding Junior Faculty Award.

In 1990 he was named vice president of the computer science research division at the nascent NEC Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. There, he established its computer division, and two years later became president of the Institute, which also supported physics research.

After retiring in 2000, he soon became a part-time senior scientist at Princeton University, where he continued research work, primarily with associates in the Chemical and Biological Engineering department.

A fellow of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) from 1991, he was elected five years later a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S). In 1987 he received an honorary doctorate from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Also a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), in 1987-88 he had served as president of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM).

In his free time, he regularly attended concerts, operas, and plays. He also enjoyed sailing, tennis, New York Times crossword puzzles, parties, and, above all, travel to destinations around the world.

He leaves his partner of 50 years, wife Ann Lee Morgan, an art historian; a daughter, K. Jodi Gear of Butte, Montana, and son, Christopher, of Reno, Nevada, both from an earlier marriage to Sharon Smith; four grandchildren; and a sister, Kate Redding, in England.

Read the original obituary.

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This story was published October 14, 2022.