Brown CS Remembers Rosemary Simpson


    Brown CS has been mourning the loss of our colleague and friend, Rosemary Simpson, who was a valued member of Andy van Dam’s research group and a fixture in the halls of the CIT for more than twenty-five years. She passed away in late 2022. 

    Before formally joining Andy’s team in 1991 (the two had collaborated informally earlier), Rosemary enjoyed a varied career as high school chemistry teacher, systems engineer at IBM, programmer, teacher of the DecSystem-10 operating system, technical writer, professional indexer, and information structures designer. She was already the author of numerous software manuals, reference guides, and academic publications whose content ranged from organizing heterogeneous data sets to computer-aided instructional games. 

    John Mann met Rosemary while working at Prime Computer in 1980. He was her partner for a decade and a friend for more than thirty years afterward. “We hit it off,” he says, “because we both liked talking endlessly about things we didn’t have the answers for. Rosemary hoped not to be alone and imagined I might be someone who was worth bothering with, though little did I know that at the beginning! Neither of us wanted to risk a terrific relationship by getting married, but we were a proper married couple except for the paperwork that would have made it official.”

    Calling to mind what made Rosemary special brings forth in John what he describes as a flood of disorganized riches: “She was awesomely, fearsomely brilliant in her natural state, but completely free of any sort of cruelty or self-centeredness in the destructive sense. She had a tremendous memory and organizational skills, and she followed her own path into research, data organization, and hypertext.”

    Undoubtedly, says Mann, it was her collaboration with Andy van Dam that led Rosemary to her most profound contributions in her field: “Whatever she could discover, whatever she could organize into useful form, Andy would then take on a world tour. When he talked, people listened, and her collection and organization and rationalization was a tremendous contribution. A good index can save the right person from catastrophe, or a good piece of technical writing, and Rosemary created many of both, but Andy’s longer research projects gave her enough time to rattle off through the cosmos and then return with treasures.”

    Andy describes Rosemary as an information finder and manager, his right hand in organization and presentation, the creative tester of ideas and systems, and a true intellectual partner. 

    “And with our last several hypertext systems,” he says, “she served as a kind of a goad, telling us which features were needed and helping set user requirements. Rosemary didn’t write code for us, but she thought like the developer she once was. Her mindset was invaluable: she could switch between being a developer/researcher on one end and an envelope-pushing user on the other. Most developers can’t do that second part.”

    His most substantial collaboration with Rosemary, says Andy, was developing, running, and then writing a paper based on a symposium for the fiftieth anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s revolutionary “As We May Think” essay in 1995. But even in the months and years just before her death, Rosemary was teaching multiple topics of the course co-taught by Norm Meyrowitz ‘81 and Andy, CSCI 1951-V Hypertext/Hypermedia: The Web Was Not the Beginning and the Web Is Not the End over Zoom to an enthusiastic group of students and offering input on every last slide of van Dam’s lectures.

    “She never wanted to be put in the limelight,” Andy remembers, “but when pushed, was articulate and cogent and could pitch our work very effectively to sponsors and visitors. Rosemary was completely her own person and would call bullshit on any idea I advocated that she didn’t buy into. We were lucky enough to have the kind of creative conflict where you can knock ideas around without fear and personal judgment about the other person and work your way to a compromise – that characterized our collaboration.”

    Anne Spalter was one of Rosemary’s colleagues at the National Science Foundation’s Graphics and Visualization Center, co-founded in 1991 by Andy’s graphics group and the graphics groups at four peer institutions with the goals of building a stronger scientific foundation for computer graphics and scientific visualization and helping create the basic framework for future interactive graphical environments.

    “I have many fond memories of working with her,” Anne says, “from the detailed research she did to create the fantastic index for my book, The Computer in the Visual Arts, to many late nights working on slide decks for Andy's courses and talks, to her fearless re-immersion into Brown's mathematics courses. I was also impressed with Rosemary’s personal creative projects, such as her beautiful large-scale quilting. Although I haven't been involved with the department for some years now, I am sure her brilliant mind and warm heart will be deeply missed there.” 

    Simpson came to know more members of the Brown community than one might think, Andy tells us. “Maybe this is false modesty,” he says, “but her favorite part of being at Brown wasn’t working for me, it was the hard Philosophy courses she took and the faculty members she interacted with in long, philosophical discussions.”  

    Roberto Tamassia remembers many serendipitous encounters and informal conversations with Rosemary in the halls of the CIT over the years. “It was fun and intellectually stimulating to talk to her,” he says. “I always felt she was a very bright and special person.”

    Rosemary had what can only be seen as a painful and traumatic early childhood. “But she had a genuinely good and generous spirit and always thought the best of people,” says Andy, “which is uncommon in my circle. She was interested in people, and she would often interview grad students, either about her own ideas or because I had asked her to filter something through her experience or points of view.”  

    John remembers the daily phenomenon of being presented with multiple contrasting points of view in a single conversation with Rosemary. “One day,” he says, “she and I were sitting around talking, and she said something incredibly, indescribably unrelated to anything we’d been talking about. There was a brief pause, and then she said, ‘I didn’t say that!’ and I sat there dumbfounded. I was stunned.” 

    It was a challenge for the people around her, Mann says, to realize that Rosemary could simultaneously believe something utterly different than what she’d just said, even something completely antithetical. Sometimes her interlocutors failed to follow Rosemary across a particularly ambitious cross-reference, but Andy remembers that she was rarely dismayed.

    “The reason she loved hypertext,” he says, “and was one of the pioneers in the area, though not a well-known one, was that in her thinking process, everything was connected to everything else. You couldn’t mention two subjects, however far removed, where she couldn’t think of some way in which they were probably linked. She might not have been able to give you an example immediately, but she could once she thought through it for a bit. That was one of the beauties of the universe for her. Despite the horrors of her childhood, she fired herself up to be a lover of life. She very easily could have been a tortured soul, but instead Rosemary radiated positivity and a lust for life. Everything fascinated her. She was unbounded.”