Computer science department founder Robert Noonan dies at 74

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Robert “Bob” Noonan, an Emeritus computer science professor at the College of William and Mary who is credited with founding the department, died Thursday, Nov. 1, following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 74 years old. College Provost Michael Halleran confirmed his death with a message to faculty Nov. 6.

Noonan had worked at the College since 1976 as a faculty member in the mathematics department. Soon after, he and two other colleagues persuaded the College administration to establish a stand-alone computer science department. In July 1984, such a department was founded, offering both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Furthermore, in 1986, the computer science department became the third at the College to offer doctoral degrees.

“Bob will be remembered as a kind friend and a passionate teacher who always put the interest of William & Mary’s students first,” Halleran said in a written statement. “Despite his long battle with Parkinson’s and lymphoma, he did not hesitate to teach in overland so that our B.S. students had enough classes to take and would be able to graduate. His students have fond memories of his mentorship as well as the annual graduation parties at his home. His support for his department and his colleagues was also unwavering. He did not hesitate to sit in every single lecture of junior colleagues for an entire semester to provide constructive advice as how to improve their teaching.”

Noonan was born June 4, 1944, in Rahway, New Jersey. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Providence College in 1966 and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Purdue University in 1968 and 1971, respectively. Noonan was the 22nd student to receive a Ph.D. in computer science from Purdue. Soon after graduating, he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland at College Park as an assistant professor.

During his time at the College, Noonan took a lead in several academic and administrative positions. He chaired the Information Technology Advisory Committee, a position in which he convinced the administration to wire campus for internet access. Then, he served as the acting associate provost for information technology. He also served as the computer science department’s longest-standing undergraduate director.

Noonan later joined the Liberal Arts Computer Science Consortium representing the College and was a long-standing member of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Special Interest Group for Computer Science Education. He also co-authored a textbook, “Programming Languages: Principles and Paradigms” that has been used to teach programming languages across the country.

“Despite his many accomplishments, Bob was humble and dedicated to others,” Halleran said in a written statement. “He would always speak his mind but extremely thoughtfully and considerately. As a leading figure in our Department for decades, he has nurtured an egalitarian, good stewardship climate which we identify as one of the biggest strengths in our department and try to maintain to this day.”

When both he and his wife, who was also a computer science professor at the College, retired, the computer science department established the Bob and Debbie Noonan Award that is now given to an undergraduate student with a high GPA and active participation in computer science-related extracurriculars. Noonan is survived by his wife, son, three brothers, numerous nephews, nieces, grand-nephews, grand-nieces and his in-laws. Halleran said Noonan will be greatly missed by his students, friends and colleagues. Visitation hours were held Wednesday, Nov. 7 at the Nelsen Funeral Home in Williamsburg.

A celebration of life service was held Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Wellspring United Methodist Church. Halleran said that in lieu of flowers, Noonan’s family has asked that donations be made to the Williamsburg Players or to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.