On November 17, 2022, at the age of 91, Frederick Phillips Brooks, Jr. passed away in his home in Chapel Hill, NC surrounded by family and friends singing hymns. Many tributes have since been published, including excellent ones in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Computer Science Department, and Trinity School of Durham. Fred meant a lot to many people, and I encourage you to read these and other remembrances. To those, I now add my own.
Fred was born in Durham, NC and lived briefly in Chapel Hill where his father was a chemistry professor at UNC-CH. His father changed careers, became a physician, and moved with his family to Greenville, NC where Fred and his two younger brothers were raised. He studied Physics at Duke and received his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from Harvard. Fred met his wife, Nancy, also a Physics graduate student, while at Harvard (though, ironically, they were born in the same Durham hospital). He became a pioneer in the field of Computer Architecture/Science, eventually being recognized in 1999 as an ACM Turing Award recipient for his towering contributions to that field.
I met Fred in 1999. I was nervous to meet him given his long career at UNC and his and Nancy’s long and significant involvement with Focus, the UNC InterVarsity Christian Fellowship graduate chapter. We bonded over common family roots going back several generations in the same geographical part of the state. More than that, we bonded over our common faith in Christ and our shared commitment to the mission of the Gospel at UNC (my alma mater).
In Jeremiah 29, the prophet implores the exiled Israelites to, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Fred Brooks embodied this passage. He loved to build things, whether it was as a groundbreaking computer architect and software engineer with IBM in the 1960s, or as a newly hired faculty member in 1964 at UNC Chapel Hill to start the Computer Science Department. The department flourished with him as founder, then chair for twenty years, and as a professor until 2015. One of Fred’s colleagues, Dr. David Stotts, recently said that the department’s high value on collaboration and partnership goes back to Brooks himself.
Fred was never one to separate his faith from his work. It was integral to all that he did. You see this in his monumental book, The Mythical Man Month, with references to scripture and quotes from C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. And you would hear it in his public speeches, speaking with clarity about the role of Jesus Christ in his life as a computer scientist before all his colleagues at the dedication of the Brooks Building on campus, the expansion (or “annex,” as Fred would say) of the computer science facility.
Indeed, it was no surprise to those who knew him that Fred only fully retired in 2015. He loved what he did and saw his work as a computer scientist as the outworking of God’s call on his life. Fred used to say, if you enjoy what you do, why would you want to stop doing it, especially if it was what God had created and called you to do?
Fred would often remind you of what it means to be human by sharing his life with you. A few years ago, on a trip with him and a couple of his grandkids to board up their beach house before a hurricane, I remember Fred’s excitement for a plate of barbecue at Smithfield’s Chicken and Barbecue and a stop at a nearby vegetable and fruit stand. Here I was with a Turing Award winner and some of his family, eating a plate of good eastern style NC barbecue in Warsaw, NC. There was no pretension with Fred, just plain enjoyment in simple pleasures with others.
Shortly after his stroke (just after the beginning of the COVID lockdown), I had a couple of conversations with Fred over Zoom from my front porch while he was in the hospital. Fred began identifying various birds chirping in my front yard trees. It may seem commonplace to most of us, but Fred took delight in things like this. His delight invited others to enjoy them as well.
Many enjoyed the hospitality and generosity of Fred and Nancy. When they first moved to Chapel Hill, he and Nancy helped start an InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship chapter, Focus. It is the oldest IVCF graduate chapter in the country and Fred served as its faculty advisor for fifty years. For most of those years, the graduate chapter met in their home every other Friday night, for dinner, a speaker, and always hymn singing.
Graduate school can be an isolating experience for graduate students. The Brooks’ home provided a refuge and a community of encouragement. On cold nights, Fred would build a fire in the fireplace. For many years, Nancy prepared the meal for dinner. Their hospitality provided the context for lifelong friendships to form and many marriages. It also provided a communal context for students to work out issues with faith and scholarship.
The Brooks’ love of music is well known in our community. Early in the life of Focus, the Brooks and the graduate students started an annual community Messiah Sing. Whether you played an instrument or just brought your voice, everyone was invited to participate in singing Handel’s Messiah. Scores of the music were provided and all were welcome whatever their skill. The annual Messiah Sing has continued in Chapel Hill for more than 50 years (sans COVID years). Even today, it stands as a testimony to their commitment to see the beauty of the Gospel proclaimed in that community.
For the past 40 plus years, during UNC’s fall break, 10-15 UNC graduate students have headed down to the Brooks’ beach house on NC’s southernmost coastline. For most of the last twenty years, I’ve overseen this trip. Fred, or Fred and Nancy often joined us for this get away. The time away included lots of unstructured free time for fun on the beach, reading, or grading whatever assignments the graduate students had doled out on undergrads. There was always a list of optional jobs and projects to be done around the house, and students usually jumped in. Fred always participated. It’s hard to measure the mentoring that happened during these experiences. When you were with Fred, you were guaranteed to learn something.
I don’t believe Fred ever set out to build a legacy. But he has certainly left us with one! With gratitude, he just did what he enjoyed doing and did it to the fullest. Again, in his book, The Mythical Man Month, Fred wrote that “to only a fraction of the human race does God give the privilege of earning one’s bread doing what one would have gladly pursued free, for passion. I am very thankful.” Both his joy and his work ethic were contagious. You just enjoyed being with Fred, whether it was on a Friday night with the graduate chapter in their home or working on a project. Who didn’t look forward to hearing his distinctive laugh? Fred enjoyed life, and it made you want to as well.
Fred Brooks contributed in many other ways to the welfare of UNC and the Chapel Hill and Durham communities. My life and the lives of many others are all the richer for having known him. In gratitude, let us all give thanks for these contributions and for the joyful life of Fred Brooks.
About the author:
Hank Tarlton is a campus minister at UNC Chapel Hill with InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries. He lives in Durham, NC with his wife Tara, and they have three adult children. Hank serves as a Deacon in a local Anglican church, enjoys local history, Carolina basketball, and bluegrass music.