UW computer pioneer Wes Graham dies

Tony Reinhart

August 24, 1999

(James Wesley (Wes) ) Graham

James Wesley (Wes) Graham, a humble computing pioneer who gave the University of Waterloo a world-wide reputation, has died.

Graham, 67, succumbed to cancer Sunday at his Waterloo home, just three days after he was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada.

Ontario Lt. Gov. Hilary Weston bestowed the honour Thursday in a private ceremony at Graham's home.

So great were Graham's accomplishments that former colleagues had trouble summing them up.

"There isn't enough time," former UW president Doug Wright said Monday.

"He had enormous influence. He was a great teacher and a great leader, and did more than any one person to put Waterloo on the map in computing," Wright said.

In the mid-1960s, Graham developed breakthrough software that made it possible for all university students -- not just the computer whiz kids -- to use computers.

In the late '70s, he was believed to be first to string a group of personal computers (PCs) together as a local area network, or LAN -- as common to today's offices as chairs and cubicles.

And in the early 1980s, Graham pioneered the UW spin-off company, starting the first of many off-campus, high-tech ventures.

Not bad for an unassuming kid from Copper Cliff, Ont., near Sudbury, who got his first taste of computing while studying math and physics at the University of Toronto in the early 1950s.

After a brief stint as a systems engineer for IBM, Graham joined UW as an assistant professor in 1959, two years after the university opened.

He intended to teach statistics, but was soon drawn to the school's computers, and their untapped potential.

"He looked at these (computers) and said, 'Lookit, we've got this really neat tool out there, how can we make it accessible to students?' " said Don Cowan, a UW computer science professor and longtime Graham colleague.

Slow, unforgiving and locked away from all but an elite few, university computers of the day were anything but practical.

This was a big problem for UW, which wanted to expose more undergraduates, particularly science and engineering students, to computers.

"Wes Graham soon recognized that the software available on computers was not designed for teaching purposes," Cowan said.

"Others recognized these difficult pedagogical problems, but Wes Graham did something about them."

In 1965, Graham hunkered down with four students and a junior faculty member.

After three intense months, they came up with a software system called WATFOR, which made UW's computers much faster and more user-friendly.

WATFOR and its later versions transformed the teaching of computer programming. Business, industry and government soon adopted it, spreading UW's reputation beyond academic circles.

Graham's influence wasn't confined to the university level. In the 1970s, he helped design the first computer-studies curriculum for Ontario's high schools.

He also designed an early portable computer and software that could be moved from room to room in a high school for maximum benefit to students.

As UW began to turn out top-notch computing experts, many wanted to start their own businesses. Graham spotted the opportunity for UW and its grads to jointly benefit and, in 1981, helped three of his former students start Watcom, a company to develop and market educational software.

Other UW spinoff companies to follow the Watcom model include Waterloo Maple and Open Text.

In 1994, Watcom was bought by Sybase, the world's sixth largest software company, a deal worth millions to Graham and his cohorts.

But Graham wasn't one to flaunt his good fortune.

He could have had the spiffiest sports car on the lot, but found familiar comfort in his old full-size van.

"He was unassuming and not self-seeking," Wright said.

Cowan concurred.

"It was not his style to show off in any way shape or form," he said. "He was a very modest guy, and always gave everybody else credit for his accomplishments."

Graham and his wife, from whom he was separated, had six children (one deceased), and seven grandchildren. He is also survived by his companion and her three children.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Monday.

ŠKitchener-Waterloo Record 1999
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