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Theodore J. Sjoerdsma, First Professor of Computer Science at W&L, Dies at 83

Theodore J. Sjoerdsma, professor of computer science at Washington and Lee University from 1984 to 1995, died on Sept. 22 in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was 83.

Sjoerdsma served as the first head of the then brand-new Computer Science Department, and his arrival heralded the establishment of computer science as W&L’s 31st undergraduate major.

He received his introduction to computers in 1963, during a summer course at Oregon State University that didn’t have an actual computer. “We simply wrote programs as if the computers were there,” he told the W&L alumni magazine in 1985. “It was purely an intellectual exercise.”

At the time of his arrival at W&L, Sjoerdsma didn’t think that students needed their own computers and could instead use the banks of PCs available around campus. He did, however, believe “there is no end to the use of computers . . . in a liberal arts setting.”

He also offered advice for alumni who were feeling intimidated by using PCs, which in 1985 were just starting to permeate offices and homes. “Borrow a friend’s machine, take it into an empty room, and close the door. Most of the time, the phobia is primarily a matter of having someone looking over your shoulder as you make mistakes. No one wants to be made to appear foolish or stupid—especially by a dumb machine.”

Sjoerdsma was born in Grand Rapids on Jan. 5, 1929. He received an A.B. in mathematics from Calvin College in 1954, an M.A.T. in mathematics from Michigan State in 1961, and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Iowa in 1975.

He taught math at high schools in Michigan and in Guam from 1952 to 1957, and at Dordt College from 1957 to 1967.  At the University of Iowa, he chaired its computer science department from 1967 until 1984, when he came to W&L. He retired in 1995 after 11 years.

In addition to his teaching, Sjoerdsma obtained several grants from the National Science Foundation, advised many colleges and universities about academic computing, published numerous papers and presented at conferences. He served such national organizations as the National Educational Computing Conference, the Conference on Computers in the Undergraduate Curriculum and the World Conference on Computers in Education.

In retirement, Sjoerdsma built homes for Habit for Humanity. He served his church as a deacon and an elder, and in Grand Rapids belonged to the Forest Hills Presbyterian Church.

Sjoerdsma is survived by his wife of 61 years, Barb De Zeeuw Sjoerdsma; four children, Ron Sjoerdsma, Gregg Sjoerdsma, Joel Sjoerdsma and Lisa Vande Lune; a daughter-in-law, Kate Sjoerdsma; sisters Ann VandenBerg and JoAnn DeKoekkoek; sisters-in-law Hilda DeVries and Lillian Entingh; thirteen grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; numerous nieces and nephews; many cousins; and many friends. His son Doug Sjoerdsma preceded him in death.

The family suggests that remembrance donations be made to the Hauenstein Neuroscience Center at St. Mary’s, 220 Cherry St., Grand Rapids, MI 49503, or to your local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

News Contact:
Julie Campbell
Associate Director of Communications and Public Affairs

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