As we look back on 40 years of Brown CS, successfully funding our UTA Endowment has been one of our most important but also our most gratifying recent milestones. UTAships are tremendous gifts, but in many cases, they’re also historical documents. Each of them tells a story, and some are funny (“Hotel CIT UTAship in honor of Tom Doeppner”), but others are much more. This is the story of a computer science pioneer whose tragic death inspired her classmate, alum Stephen H. Beck, to create a lasting memorial: the UTAship for Underrepresented Minority Women in memory of Marie Moses ‘82.
For privacy reasons, Brown CS records contain only limited demographic information about our students, but Marie Moses is believed to be one of our first two black female graduates. (Donna L. Woodall graduated in the same year.)
Born in Hollis, Queens, she was the eldest of three children in what her sister, Valarie, describes as an incredibly close-knit family: “When our friends would come over, sometimes they’d just sort of watch us, enjoying our family’s jokes and stories. We knew we were different and even unusual.”
“We also knew we were special because of how important our father was,” Valarie remembers. He had been James Brown’s manager in the 1960s, later was the first black partner in the entire country for Cooper and Lybrand (now Price Waterhouse), and eventually became CEO of Omnicare. “That belief drew us closer together as a family. It was us against the world.”
That closeness was clearly needed. Marie excelled at math and skipped the fifth grade, but a series of relocations exposed the family to prejudice and abuse. After a move to Westport, Connecticut, they were one of only two black families in the entire town, and Marie commuted each day to a high school in Stamford. “Marie had a tough time there,” Valarie says. “Many of the white students stayed away from her at best, and the black students taunted her and threw rocks at her for being ‘too white’ and ‘acting smart’.” Trying to protect her daughter, Marie’s mother had her learn needlepoint as a way to keep her home on weekends.
“In true Marie fashion,” says Valarie, “she not only learned needlepoint, she became adept at it.” Hard work and the ability to make hard work seem effortless had already become one of Marie’s trademarks: “She was organized, driven, and excelled at all she did, but she was also a lot of fun, incredibly loyal. Even as a child she had the characteristics that were on on full display as an adult.”
After graduating from high school at age sixteen, Valarie says that Marie was delighted to be admitted to her first-choice school, gaining a new social life and being surrounded by people who saw intelligence as something to be proud of. She’d been interested in computers before college, but this was years before the era of widespread home computing, so her first in-depth exposure to them was at Brown.
Our Father’s Daughter
Did Marie realize that she was going to become one of the first two black women with a Brown CS degree?
“It’s hard to say,” Valarie answers. “Marie didn’t talk about that, but she knew she was special and was very aware of what she’d been given in life – she volunteered for years in local nursing homes. We may have known how unusual it was for an African-American woman to major in CS at Brown, but our parents had both gone to CCNY and her success seemed like a natural continuation of our father’s legacy. She was our father’s daughter: an overachiever, very analytical, and she could command any room she walked into.”
What was Brown like then? Let’s turn to Steve Beck, who explains that he graduated at the top of his high school class but then suffered the all-too-common shock of arriving on campus and no longer being the smartest person in the room. “It was terrifying but wonderful,” he says. “I loved the Department’s rigor and discipline, but also the humor. People were expected to stand up and deliver.” Disco still ruled the airwaves, and Steve surprised himself by diving into the dance music scene and becoming a DJ. He can still be found mixing songs, only this time on his computer. “It was a passion, and it’s one I still have.”
Steve and Marie met through shared classes: “We saw each other in the lab all the time and eventually became friends. I really enjoyed our interactions – Marie had a great sense of humor, but she was even-keeled. Some of us were really wild, but she was more mature. She was unflappable.”
One of the interactions with Marie that Steve remembers most clearly was a challenging but revelatory moment. At the time, they were co-UTAs in what was then CS 11. During a group discussion with a mix of students and other UTAs on a block letters project, Steve impulsively (and, he admits in hindsight, immaturely) made a spontaneous decision on everyone’s behalf. Marie instantly called him out, mincing no words as she asked whether he was aware of the challenges facing her and other women of color on a college campus in that era.
“It was an awakening for me,” he says. “I saw a whole world that I didn’t know about, and it made a real impact.” Steve may modestly disagree, but it seems to say something about a person’s character when an encounter that could have led to resentment and anger becomes a learning moment and a catalyst for change.
Ocie James Irons ‘81 met Marie at Brown through a shared calculus class. An only child and, he says, independent to a fault, he’d transferred to a private school in the tenth grade because he wanted to attend an Ivy League school. He describes himself as curious: “I’m not necessarily academic, but I enjoy learning. This class was more conceptual, and I wasn’t doing well. Marie was kicking ass.”
So he asked for help, walking across campus to her dorm room for tutoring with his calculus book and notes. And also, tucked under his arm, something that suggests a more than academic interest: a backgammon board. (The two later married and had a son together.)
Ocie remembers being astounded by the records and books that Marie showed him: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Neil Diamond. “We were both black, and they were all things that I would have associated with white people. They were things I hadn’t read, or heard, and it was interesting to me, it impressed me.” Despite her formidable intelligence, there was more to Marie than studying. She was gifted at dance, Ocie says, and she had dreams of becoming a professional dancer in the same way that some of her male peers hoped for careers as athletes.
In addition to helping Ocie with calculus, Marie was looking out for other people as well, becoming a resident assistant and very much a resource for her fellow students: “She was open, helpful, very attractive, inquisitive, extremely friendly, but in a way that wasn’t off-putting. She expressed her opinions forcefully, but not aggressively, and she didn’t dominate the dialogue. She listened.”
And she listened with a real excitement, Valarie says, to groundbreaking instructors like Robert “Brother Ah” Northern, a jazz musician who had students repeat the phrase “Egypt is in Africa” aloud in class. Marie was always meticulous, marking her stack of punch cards with a diagonal line across the side (this allowed for easy reordering if they were dropped), but the boldness of statements like Northern’s appealed to her. “She was just so excited by her classes and the new ideas they exposed her to,” Valarie says. “She loved how eccentric some of her professors were. She loved all of it.”
Making A Big Impact
Marie and Ocie eventually divorced, but their son, Gregory, remained her world. “She took him everywhere,” Valarie remembers, “so he could have the broadest background possible. To me, the fact that she was such a dedicated mother is just as important as her intelligence and drive. She restructured her world for her kids.” As a single mother, Marie sometimes had to have someone watch her children, and Valarie still has the notebooks full of handwritten instructions that she kept for babysitters: “Marie wanted their every need taken care of. She wrote out in meticulous detail what she wanted the sitters to do when she wasn’t there so her kids would grow and learn.”
After graduating, Marie’s career rapidly took shape. One of her important early jobs was in programming. She was working for Genesis, a company developing something called Lifecard, a revolutionary product that would allow someone to carry around their entire medical history on a wallet-sized piece of plastic. “I was living with Marie that summer,” Valarie says, “and I was impressed that she could work long hours and still mop the kitchen floor before bedtime. On weekends, she would volunteer with Big Sisters or at a nursing home. All of this, and she still had the social life that she’d coveted for so long.”
Later, she returned to academia, becoming an adjunct professor at Walsh College and Wayne State University. But even as she traveled from city to city, earning a Master’s degree as a working single mother, her belief in giving back continued. After a move to Detroit, she started teaching high school, passionate about inspiring kids who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in math.
“From a very young age,” Ocie says, “Marie was making a big impact as an African- American woman, and she never stopped. The need to volunteer really stands out in her life.” He remembers a trip to Japan where Marie stood out physically with her height and skin color, but in other ways as well. “It was her personality and her acumen. She had a kind of edge, but not just for the sake of being noticed. She was daring enough to express who she was in the things she did and who she did them with.”
Valarie remembers that Marie never lost contact with her mentee from the Big Sisters program, even years later: “I have to say, I looked at her in amazement. ‘Marie, when do you sleep?’ And she was always so present. She always kept very late nights so the papers could be graded and the housework completed. She had that overall dedication while still being present for her family.”
The Best Kind Of Leader
In late December of 2002, something unimaginable occurred: Marie was killed by her second husband ten days after he’d been released from a Michigan emergency room. She’d brought him there after he began making threats and showing signs of mental illness, but a doctor ignored another physician’s recommendation that he be transferred to a psychiatric unit, and he was discharged. Immediately, there was an enormous hole left behind. Somehow, everything Marie had done (the volunteer work, getting her degrees, the dancing, the travel, being a family member and having a family of her own, her Lifecard innovations, the kids she’d inspired to study math) had been accomplished in just 41 years.
“He took out someone at the top of her game,” Valarie says, “and her death at Christmastime was especially cruel. The holidays were important for her because they were a time for family and friends to get together. Marie was the reason I came home for the holidays from the Peace Corps. She was the glue that held our family together as we grew older.”
“It was a huge shock,” Ocie remembers. “We don’t always think of domestic violence as something that affects everyone, but Marie’s murder calls to our attention that it can impact people regardless of their socioeconomic level.”
Finding out that Marie was gone was particularly difficult for Steve because they hadn’t been in contact for quite some time: “After school, we didn’t really stay in touch, and I deeply regret that. One of our classmates, Patty Lutsky, told me about her death, and she rallied the troops to donate to charity in Marie’s name, but I wanted to do more.”
Another person that Steve had considered honoring was Randy F. Pausch, the Brown CS alum and renowned expert in computer science, human-computer interaction, and design who died from pancreatic cancer in 2008. He and Randy had been sophomore roommates, and Steve had already set up a fundraising site for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) that ended up being quite successful. He thought about charitable giving to the UTA program in Pausch’s name, but other people had beaten him to it, so he turned his attention elsewhere. Marie’s UTAship was the result: he founded it, became the primary donor, and convinced others to give as well. (A full list of donors is at the end of this article.)
“I really wanted to honor her memory as a pioneer,” he says. “She led the way with grace, dignity, raw competence, intelligence, wit – all the things Brown CS is known for, but with humility. She was the best kind of leader.”
A Statement About Who Marie Was
“When I found out about the UTAship,” Valarie says, “I felt it was perfect. A gift like that – Marie was so generous with her knowledge and time, so I thought immediately that she would’ve loved the idea.” Ocie agrees: “I also feel a lot of joy and pride to know that Gregory will benefit from being reminded who his mother was, how she was thought of both on and off campus. That’s huge, personally, and I really appreciate that recognition.”
“And seeing people giving to her UTAship is telling,” he adds. “It lets them make a statement about who Marie was for them. If she could hear me and others talking about her today, she’d be very humble. Even in divorce, we remained friends. To this day I appreciate our relationship, all of it.”
Ocie is also glad to see how a UTAship in her honor demonstrates the importance of her alma mater to Marie: “She loved Brown, and the relationships she made there were so important. I can’t count or begin to imagine how many times I heard her say Andy van Dam’s name. And now she’s giving something to future Brown students.”
Through a gift that will renew itself each year for a different young woman, Marie’s name will always be associated with one of her lifelong priorities, the idea of giving back.
“I love that link,” Steve says. “All you have to do is follow the news cycle of the day, and for all the strides we’ve made, we keep suffering setbacks. People still look at each other differently. We have a moral imperative to be inclusive in our field, and the goal isn’t to reach a number. It should be a given that we bring in people unlike ourselves in order to change the world. I love the idea that a UTAship for underrepresented minority women marries the idea of diversity with Marie’s pioneering spirit.”
In addition to Stephen H. Beck, other donors to the UTAship for Underrepresented Minority Women in memory of Marie Moses '82 include Isaac Berkowitz; Karen Smith Catlin ‘85, P ‘18, P ‘20 and Timothy J. O. Catlin; Eugene Charniak; Justin Cohen; Maria Francesca Fernandez ‘85 ScM ‘89; Sarah Michelle Filman; Lisa Gelobter; Gregory Irons; Ocie James Irons ‘81; Patricia E. Lutsky ‘82; Norm Meyrowitz ‘81; Valarie Moses; Carol Rosenstock; Stephanie Singer; Annie Steele; and Neha Zope.