Morven Gentleman

Lifetime Achievement Award – Awarded Posthumously

Dr. W. Morven Gentleman (1942 – 2018) had a long and successful career focused on numeric and statistical computation software engineering. In his work as a faculty member at the University of Waterloo (1969-1983) and Dalhousie University (2000-2008), Dr. Gentleman helped build world-class computer science departments that shaped  future generations of computer scientists. His positions at Bell Telephone Laboratories (1965-1970) and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC, 1983-2000) allowed him to improve Canadian software research and development by sustaining productive collaborations between academia and industry.

A dedication to applied computer science

Dr. Gentleman’s contributions to computer science might have never happened had it not been for a twist in Canadian history.

“Morven wanted to go into aeronautical engineering,” explains Katherine Riordon, who was married to Dr. Gentleman for more than 35 years. “But, he was entering his career when Canada eliminated their aeronautics program with the end of the Avro Arrow. He decided on applied mathematics and found his love of the practical side of computer engineering.”

Dr. Gentleman pursued his undergraduate studies in Mathematical Physics at McGill University and went on to Princeton University on a Woodrow Wilson scholarship. He earned a PhD in Mathematics in 1965 under John Tukey. He then went on to work at Bell Labs in New Jersey and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, UK. He returned to Canada to take on a faculty position at the University of Waterloo, where he established the Software Development Group.

In 2000, Dr. Gentleman returned to academia and joined the Faculty of Computer Science at Dalhousie University as the director of the Global Information Networking Institute (GINI). He also returned to teaching and remained dedicated to his students. Riordon recalls his graduate students reaching out to him even after he retired from Dalhousie in 2008.

“He really liked working with his graduate students and would be on the phone for hours helping them out. He could address any aspect of mathematics and computer science.”

A devoted father and mentor

Dr. Gentleman’s approach to teaching was also instrumental for his own family. He supplemented his daughters’ mathematical education from kindergarten through university.

“My undergraduate engineering program included 12 math classes. I often found the professors’ explanations confusing. So I got Dad to teach me the math on the phone, late at night,” says Wendy Gentleman. “He did remote learning before there was remote learning. Dad was so effective that that I’m now an engineering professor, and I’m teaching my students math the way Dad did for me.”

When he retired in 2008, Dr. Gentleman’s younger daughter, Jennifer Gentleman, designed a hoodie to thank and recognize him for all his math help over the years. The bright green hoodie was emblazoned with “McMorven University” in large white letters on the back.

Although Dr. Gentleman’s life’s work was dedicated to mathematics and computer science, he did not have expectations for his children to follow his same pursuits.

“Dad’s influence on me was much more than simply explaining math,” says Wendy Gentleman. He supported me in whatever I wanted to do, and he encouraged me to be adventurous and strive to achieve my dreams. He was an inspirational role model for all facets of life.”

A love of nature and a unique sense of fashion

Although Dr. Gentleman was dedicated to his research, he held many interests outside of computer science.

“Dad’s work was vitally important to him,” says Wendy Gentleman. “But he also had many interests, including  boating, history, politics, word-play and puzzles. He was definitely not a one dimensional person.”

Riordon describes the many activities Dr. Gentleman like to pursue outside of his research and most took place in nature.

“For a prairie boy, he was never happy without easy access to water, preferably lakes. Morven could not live without a cottage on a lake, loved sailing or canoeing into the sunset. A mathematician, yes, to his core, but a romantic at heart.”

Dr. Gentleman was also known for his sense of humour, his encyclopedic knowledge on a variety of topics and his own particular fashion sense.

“Morven did not do suits. Under extreme duress, he would wear a tweed jacket. When I first met him, it surprised me that he didn’t even dress up for meetings with foreign dignitaries, many of whom came to visit his lab at NRC. He assured me that his outfit was that of any serious computer scientist, namely t-shirts and sneakers. At his memorial, each colleague who got up to give a eulogy mentioned the white sneakers, worn on all occasions.”

At his memorial, Dr. Gentleman was also aptly remembered for his brilliance. Riordon shared a tribute made by Dr. Maurice Cox, Dr. Gentleman’s colleague and close friend from the National Physical Laboratory.

Dr. Cox wrote: “Morven was one of the brightest people I have ever known: his all-round knowledge of mathematics, statistics, numerical analysis, IT, etc. was amazing. He also found time (I don’t know how) to follow politics, especially British politics, and always had something profound to say.”

When asked how Dr. Gentleman would react to receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award, both Riordon and Gentleman believe he would have been honoured by the recognition.

“He would have been thrilled by the award,” says Riordon. “It would have meant a lot to him. His family really appreciates it.”

“He would have been excited, honoured and proud,” says Wendy Gentleman. “But, he was not primarily motivated by formal recognition of his contributions. Rather, he would have mostly loved getting the award in order to be at the ceremony and share ideas with the other recipients and attendees.”

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