Norman Sondak, WPI's First Computer Science Professor

The first person to teach computer science at WPI, died in San Diego, Calif., on Nov. 5 at the age of 78.

Norman Sondak, the first person to teach computer science at WPI, died in San Diego, Calif., on Nov. 5 at the age of 78. Sondak joined WPI in 1968 before the Institute offered a degree in the emerging discipline (the master's program was started the following year and the undergraduate program in 1970).

Sondak also headed the Worcester Area College Computation Center (WACCC), which was started in the lower level of Gordon Library to serve the computing needs of WPI and several other local colleges. It was a time when computers were large, room-filling mainframes, like WPI's IBM 360/40, and programs were painstakingly typed on punch cards. The "Hackers of the '70s," created by WPI alumni who learned to love computers during that decade, notes that Sondak fondly described the era as "the days of wooden computers and iron programmers."

Sondak left WPI in 1978 to become chairman of the Information Systems Department at San Diego State University, where he "taught computer basics to thousands of students until he retired in 2005," according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

"He was a pioneer in information systems and computer science," Bruce Reining, chairman of Sondak's department in San Diego said in the Union Tribune. "He was a brilliant academic among his peers. He was doing research in the (computer) field before it was fully developed. He was very bright and insightful."

Sondak graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and City College of New York. He earned a master's degree in chemical engineering at Northwestern University in 1954 and was planning on a career in that field until he joined a group of fellow graduate students and professors who were experimenting with early computers at Yale University, where he earned a doctorate in chemical engineering.

Having discovered his true passion, he went to work for RCA on computer applications and the development of large-scale computer systems. He oversaw the installation of a computer system for advertising giant J. Walter Thompson and ended up joining the agency, where he became vice president in charge of computer operations. He left that post to join WPI.

Sondak is survived by Eileen, his wife of 55 years, two sons, a daughter, and four grandchildren. The family suggests that memorial contributions may be made to Kids' Turn San Diego, Parkinson's Association, United Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, Meals on Wheels, and the Cancer Fund.

November 19, 2009

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