This week, I had the unexpected thrill of meeting the ultimate Canadian alpha geek – the man commonly acknowledged to be the father of Canadian computing, Calvin (Kelly) Gotlieb.
Not that I am geek enough to have recognized him right off the bat, of course, or to have even known his name, or the manifold accomplishments associated with it.
I met him twice, in fact, before I finally found out who he was, and what a distinguished presence I had accidentally stumbled into.
The first time I saw Gotlieb (who actually prefers to be called just plain Kelly), I saw only a diminutive but hale-looking man I placed in his late 70s or early 80s. (As it turns out, I was giving him almost a decade’s worth of credit; he is currently 89.)
He and I were waiting, with a number of other people, for the shuttle bus from the Calgary airport to Banff; I noticed him primarily because I was vaguely annoyed by the way the shuttle bus employees were treating him, with that fawning, well-meaning, but condescending attention we too often inflict on our elderly, as if they were helpless puppies.
Without knowing it, though, I was myself subjecting this elderly gentleman to a different, equally unthinking form of ageism.
Though he and I jointly got off the bus at the Banff Centre, where I was to spend the next few days at an information technology conference, it never occurred to me that a man of his years would have anything to do with computers or internet networks.
The Banff Centre simultaneously hosts a wide range of different conferences and training sessions, and I had him labelled for some other event.
I was surprised the next morning, then, when I saw him in the coffee room of the Bell Centre, where the IT conference was about to go forward, talking with a another man about condominium fibre optic lines and open networks.
That being a topic warm to my nerdy little heart, I joined in the conversation, and quickly discerned that this fellow, though perhaps a little out of touch with the latest trendy techno-buzz words, was a knowledgeable, quick-thinking and well-spoken man, smart enough to understand a lot of things and secure enough in his knowledge to ask about things he did not know.
Only when I finally got around to reading the biographical section of our program, giving the credentials of the various keynote speakers, did I find out that this man, scheduled as the final speaker at the conference, was Kelly Gotlieb, winner of the Order of Canada and several bucket loads of other awards and distinctions, and the man generally credited with having created the computer technology sector in Canada.
This man who headed up the team that assembled the first computer in Canada, at the University of Toronto, in 1948 – only the second computer to be purchased in the whole world, at that time.
In 1951, he offered the first graduate course in computers, and in 1964 established the first graduate department in computer science, at the University of Toronto.
Around that same time, he was involved with the first effort to digitize a library catalogue, again at the University of Toronto – work which set the template subsequently used by the US Government when it digitized the catalogue of the Library of Congress.
He was also a founding member, and one-term president, of the Canadian Information Processing Society, an organization that, though it is currently moribund in the Yukon, has a long and highly respectable history of service to the computer industry.
For all these techie-type accomplishments, however, Kelly Gotlieb is anything but your stereotypical unsocialized, insensitive computer nerd.
As he says himself, he spoiled his youth with voracious reading in all disciplines, and enjoyed a life-long marriage with the well-known Canadian science fiction writer and poet, Phyllis Gotlieb (the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic is named after her novel of 1964).
Though I was not consciously following him in any way, I found that he and I were usually in the same session rooms at the conference, and those sessions tended to be the ones about the boundaries between technology and humanism (one session on technology and the arts, another on the importance of techno-skepticism in preserving human values in a technological society), and he was always on the side of the angels – the techno-humantists, my side – in those matters.
That he is as deft with his words as he is with his computing concepts is evident from the phrase he crafted for the gravestone of his recently departed wife – words he imparted to me over a luncheon conversation: “She graced this world, and imagined others.”
That struck me as about as graceful and un-maudlin a tribute as anyone could pay to his or her life partner.
Kelly was slated , as I said, to be the final keynote speaker of the event, and I made sure I stuck around for it – though, as is usually the case in such gatherings, the final speaker generally plays to a half-empty house.
For over an hour, he stood untiringly at the podium, moving swiftly and articulately through his presentation on the increasing speed of technological change and its social adoption and impact.
The applause at the end had none of that ain’t-you-a-quaint-old-fella condescension of the bus people; it was the respect and admiration of his intellectual inheritors.
Kelly Gotlieb is a still-living example of the reason why you can’t teach some old dogs new tricks: they already know them all.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie
who lives in Whitehorse.