Memories of Larry Wittie (1943-2019), Long-Time Computer Science Professor

Long-time (1982-2015) Stony Brook University CS faculty member, Larry Wittie, passed away on September 21, 2019 as the result of end-stage Parkinson's disease. Current faculty shared their memories of his impact on their lives and his influence on the Department of Computer Science.

"Larry was a great educator and an esteemed researcher in the area of massively parallel computing. He will be missed by his colleagues and students," said Samir Das, Chair of the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook.

Professor Scott Smolka described him as “an esteemed colleague and all-around good guy working in systems/networking.” Scott pointed out Larry’s 1978 paper entitled “Large-scale simulation of brain cortices,” as being “way ahead of its time.” As an example of his warm nature, Scott remembered a party invitation to celebrate a successful student defense that Larry sent in which he encouraged good friends, good food, and fine spirits. He concluded his thoughts of Larry with, “You are missed, lw.”

R. Sekar credits Larry’s Advanced Operating Systems course (CSE 534 at the time) and Seminar on AI as getting him through the transition from power systems engineering to computer science. “My interest in systems, as well as the way I think about systems problems, were singularly shaped by this course [CSE 534],” he said. He also mentioned Larry’s hand-writing recognition project from a Spring ’88 course, as an example of his early recognition of the promise of neural networks.

Yevgen Borodin expressed sadness at the passing as he reminisced about being a student in Larry’s System Architecture class. “He made us detail all our assumptions and was very critical if any two people got the same answer,” he said. “I also remember his stories were always entertaining...flying squirrels and Bing Bang theory stuck in my mind.”

Richard McKenna pointed out Larry’s sense of humor, “I'll never forget his feigning a heart attack in one of our faculty meetings for dramatic effect to hearing some news,” he said. He also remembered the great stories that Larry would tell about growing up in West Texas.

“He always showed he was very appreciative of hard things,” said Annie Liu, citing works by Russian scientist Valentin Turchin and others by American mathematician and computer scientist, Jack Schwartz. “He even tried to convince me to work with him on some things he started with Turchin (after he found out I had studied Turchin's work),” she continued. “I might have learned interesting things from him if I had gotten to study concurrent and distributed systems sooner.”

“Larry and Ker-I Ko [former CS professor who passed away in December of 2018] were two of the very first people I spoke to when I came to Stony Brook in August 2005,” said Radu Sion. “The department was empty and I said hello to two of my new colleagues and…ended up having two of the most interesting conversations that summer!” Radu also remembered Larry as having so many cool ideas and dreams and that he approached them with the “verve and undiminished curiosity of a much younger student of life.”

Larry Dawson Wittie is survived by his wife, Kasia Wittie, who provided him with amazing, steadfast care for five years during his illness; his 3 children Leah, Loren and Maciek; former wife Diane Fischer and his sisters Betty Ann Wittie-Kirchner and Peggy Wittie. He was at peace, and he knew he was loved. He was brilliant and he will be missed.

Department Reflections in Full

(To be included, email your memories of Larry Wittie to danoatcs.stonybrook.edu)

Scott Smolka
Larry was an esteemed colleague and all around good guy working in systems/networking. His 1978 paper "Large-scale simulation of brain cortices" was way ahead of its time.  This 1997 invite to his home to celebrate a successful student defense was indicative of his warm nature. You are missed, lw.  Scott

Folks, this is to follow up on our Friday meeting discussions. Kasia and I would like you to visit our home at XX Pilgrim Path, Huntington for food starting around 5 PM, this Saturday 22 Nov.

If you want to cook at our place, come earlier.  If you need to talk with Kasia to make arrangements, call her at XXX-XXXX.

Please bring your spouse/good-friend.  Bring your children if you wish. This party will be very informal, I hope.

We suggest that you bring a dish of food to share, or beverages for others to help drink if you prefer not to cook.  Kasia will make a few dishes. I will uncork some wine bottles and have some dark beers ready.   {A dinner where people bring food to share is a potluck dinner, your meal is whatever luck brings to the cooking pot.}  This is a great time to show others the food styles you learned as a child.  Kasia, Maciek, and I like spicy food (e.g., kimchee, curries, and Thai), so don't be afraid to season your dish as you like it.

Pls send me email to let me know if you and yours can come to the party.

R. Sekar
I remember his advanced operating systems course (CSE 534 in those days) and his seminar on AI (CSE 630). His encouragement in 534 was instrumental in getting me through the transition from power systems engineering to computer science. My interest in systems, as well as the way I think about systems problems, were singularly shaped by this course. Larry was also among the first to recognize the promise of neural networks--I remember the hand-writing recognition project from his Spring '88 course.

My wife reminded me that Larry also taught architecture, introducing the department to Hennessy and Patterson's book around the late 80's as a preprint edition, together with architecture projects using dlxsim and dinero. Although I didn't take my architecture course with him, the material was so interesting that it became the primary source of my architecture knowledge.

He is the third professor to pass away among the four that taught me in my first semester. I wish he did not have to suffer so much in his final days.

Yevgen Borodin
This is very sad news... I enjoyed Larry as my professor of the System Architecture class. He made us detail all our assumptions and was very critical if any two people got the same answer. I also remember his stories were always entertaining...flying squirrels and Bing Bang theory stuck in my mind.

His legacy lives on in his research, his students, and his kids. I met his son at the NSF SBIR conference this spring. His son is a successful CS professor and, apparently, an entrepreneur--he was the PI of an NSF SBIR grant.

Richard McKenna
Very sad news. I'll never forget his feigning a heart attack in one of our faculty meetings for dramatic effect to hearing some news. He told great stories about growing up in West Texas. I used to see him and his wife around town, but it has been quite some time.

Michael Kifer
This is all very sad and untimely.

Klaus Mueller
That’s so sad to hear. I had no idea that Larry had Parkinson’s. I believe he left just about 5 years ago. I sure hoped he would have had a more enjoyable retirement.

Annie Liu
Very sad news indeed.  He always showed he was very appreciative of hard things: some old work by a Russian scientist (Valentin Turchin), work by Jack Schwartz (during both my hostings of Jack)....He even tried to convince me to work with him on some things he started with Turchin (after he found out I had studied Turchin's work).  I might have learned interesting things from him if I had gotten to study concurrent and distributed systems sooner.

Nice to hear everyone's stories. - Annie

Radu Sion
Larry and Ker-I Ko where two of the very first people I spoke to when I came to Stony Brook in a very hot August 2005. We were all younger and more restless then. The department was empty and I said hello to two of my new colleagues, and (within less than an hour of each other) ended up having two of the most interesting conversations that summer!

I remember Larry had so many cool ideas and dreams about all kinds of topics, approaching them with the verve and undiminished curiosity of a much younger student of life.

Through the whirlwind of tenure, teaching and work, I didn't get a chance to speak to either Larry or Ker-I Ko for as much since then (we spoke briefly quite a few times but never so engaged).

They will be missed!