In memory of computer science pioneer Paul Dirksen, 1939–2023

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Paul Dirksen, a pioneer computer scientist at the University of Waterloo, passed away on April 8, 2023. He was 83.

Paul was born on November 16, 1939 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to German Mennonite immigrants, and grew up in Waterloo. He was one of the first students at the University of Waterloo, graduating with a B.Sc. in Applied Mathematics in 1963 and an M.Sc. in Computer Science in 1964. Paul’s professors and mentors Ralph Stanton and Wes Graham encouraged him to pursue a career teaching computer science at Waterloo, leading to a decades-long career.

Paul was a vital part of Waterloo’s computing history. He was one of the developers of the WATFOR and WATFIV compilers for the IBM 360 mainframe system in the late 1960s. While a previous team had developed an earlier WATFOR for the IBM 7040, the 360 became the foundation architecture for several generations of IBM mainframes.

Waterloo’s WATFOR/WATFIV made the university internationally famous, with more than 3,000 customers in 60 countries worldwide, mostly universities and large engineering or manufacturing firms. Along with Paul Cress and Wes Graham, Paul co-authored the FORTRAN-IV with WATFOR and WATFIV textbook, which was Prentice-Hall’s best seller for many years.

Paul was recruited to the University of Manitoba and spent a few years there, but at Wes Graham’s urging he returned to Waterloo in 1972 to help run the Computer Centre — later named the Department of Computer Services (DCS) — after Paul succeeded Wes as Director. DCS ran the iconic IBM 360/75 mainframe, housed in the “Red Room” that occupied most of the lower floor of the Math & Computer building.

Waterloo alum and WATCOM co-founder Ian McPhee (MMath 1979) remembers working in Wes Graham’s Computer Systems Group, where he was assigned to enhance WATFIV with Structured Programming language extensions, making it WATFIV-S. “Paul invested quite a bit of time teaching me practical skills,” he recalls. “I always appreciated his mentorship and warm, down-to-earth manner.”

During the 1970s, Paul received international recognition and prestige in Computer Science, including the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award for young innovators. Despite his growing renown, he was always willing to collaborate on projects, provide leadership, and work closely with students.

Together, Paul, Wes Graham, and Don Cowan started the Waterloo Foundation for the Advancement of Computing (WATFAC), which sponsored development of several software products to enable computing in education. WATFAC also provided summer fellowships for leading computer science and math high school teachers in the Waterloo Region, helping to build teaching capacity in the new field in the Waterloo region and beyond. These local teachers were encouraged to nominate talented math and computer science students for WATFAC summer fellowships, often leading to these students applying to Waterloo’s math and computer science programs for their university education. After Wes Graham’s death in 1999, the WATFAC board voted to wind up the foundation and contribute its assets as core funding of the Graham Trust at Waterloo.

During the 1970s, Wes, Don, and Paul also collaborated to start a book publishing business, WATFAC Publications Limited. It published textbooks and manuals to enable the use of the many software tools for education developed by Waterloo’s Computer Systems Group (CSG), DCS, WATFAC, and later WATCOM. In addition to his Waterloo duties, Paul managed the publishing company for many years as its president.

In his spare time, Paul loved being outside in the garden and on the family farm, planting and harvesting corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and more. Paul and his wife Sandra loved classical music and were patrons of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony for many years. Paul loved jogging and cycling, taking yearly trips to Europe.

He was an enthusiastic traveller, both near and far: besides family camping trips, road trips to Florida, and summers in Muskoka at Scarliffe lodge, Paul and Sandra enjoyed exploring Nova Scotia, Hawaii, Dominican Republic, New Zealand, and Antarctica. One of the great pleasures of Paul’s life was becoming a grandfather, or Papa: a privilege he took on with joy, love, and undivided attention.

Throughout all of his life, whether working, playing, or building a family and community, Paul is remembered as a down-to-earth, kind, warm-hearted, generous man with a zest for life and a willingness to mentor staff and students.

He is survived by his best friend and wife of 58 years, Sandra. He will be profoundly missed by his children David, James, and Heidi (Chris) and grandchildren Nathan and Mackenzie, as well as his brother Eric (Dee Anne) and family.

Cremation has taken place. A celebration of life will be held on Saturday June 3, 2023, at 3:00 p.m. at the Dirksen family home. Attendees are asked to confirm attendance in advance with Sandra Dirksen. In lieu of flowers, donations to KW Symphony Orchestra, the Humane Society, or Grand River Hospital may be arranged through Erb & Good Family Funeral Home.

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