The story of Dr Clarence “Skip” Ellis is a great example Born in 1943 in south Chicago, Skip’s family was poor His mother struggled to raise five children by herself Gangs and violence were common in school Skip wasn’t one of the “cool” kids - he mostly kept to himself At the time, he was sad because he felt excluded from so many things Surprisingly, this helped him because he was able to avoid the gangs, violence and problems some kids in his class got into When he was 15, he took a job at a local company to help his family pay the bills He was assigned the “graveyard shift,” which meant he had to work all night long.
His job was to prevent break-ins and, most importantly, not to touch the company’s brand new computer! It was 1958 and computers were very expensive and not very common Since he had lots of free time, he read the computer manuals that came with the machines He became a self-taught computer expert One day, there was a crisis at the company They had an urgent project but had run out of new punch cards Early computers used punch cards to enter data and without new cards, the project came to a halt Skip was the only one who knew how to reuse old cards He changed some settings on the computer and the old cards worked perfectly He was a hero for a day! This was his first real experience with a computer and it changed his life Over the next couple of years, teachers recommended that Skip attend summer programs at local universities.
For the first time, Skip met students outside of his neighborhood and became aware of university life Skip’s family couldn’t afford to send him to college But, as he was about to graduate from high school, the pastor in his family’s church learned about a scholarship at Beloit College Beloit is located in Wisconsin, about 100 miles northwest of Chicago Skip won the scholarship and, in the fall of 1960, arrived on campus He discovered that he was the only African-American attending the school! Life in south Chicago was hard, but this was much worse He felt very alone He soon learned that his classes were much more difficult than any of those at his high school Everyone seemed smarter, more aware and better educated Fortunately, Beloit assigned a teacher to help Skip.
The teacher gave him extra lessons in the subjects that Skip was finding the most difficult, such as English He studied constantly and had no time to do many of the fun things that other students seemed to enjoy He even stayed on campus to study during winter and summer breaks Skip was so sad and lonely that he thought about quitting many, many times But he knew how proud his mother was of his accomplishments She had constantly encouraged him, saying, “be your own person and follow your talents” He vowed to stay At the beginning of his junior year, a computer was donated to the college Skip and his chemistry professor were given the task of setting it up This was the start of the college’s computer lab, and it was a big event in Skip’s life - he finally felt like he belonged.
He worked so long on the new computer that he sometimes slept overnight in the lab During this period of time, the civil rights movement was gathering momentum across the country Skip was especially moved by the non-violent protests of Dr Martin Luther King In August of 1963, Skip was one of 250,000 people who went to Washington, DC, to hear Dr King give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial From then on, Skip’s passions were computer science and civil rights Skip graduated from Beloit College in 1964 with a double major in math and physics.
He went on to graduate school at the University of Illinois (Champagne-Urbana) In 1969, he was the first African-American to be awarded a PhD in computer science While at the University of Illinois, he worked on one of the world’s first supercomputers, the Illiac 4 Since then, Skip’s career has had many high points He helped develop the concept of clicking on graphic symbols, called icons, instead of typing in complicated computer codes This work at the Xerox Research labs in Palo Alto, Calif a became the basic software for a little company called Apple Computer The “point and click” concept also became the basis for Microsoft’s “Windows” operating software, now used in most PCs across the world.
Skip has worked for many large organizations, including AT&T/Bell Labs, IBM, and several large government research labs He has taught at Stanford University, MIT and the University of Texas and in such far away places as Taiwan and Paris His work helped set national software standards to make computers more “people friendly” For the past eight years, Skip has been a professor in computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder Small things in your life can have big impacts To help pay the family bills, Skip Ellis took a job watching a computer when he was 15 Forty years later, through much perseverance and a little luck, he is a top professional in the computer field His work helped develop the basic software used by every PC in the world Many of Skip’s school age friends took different paths Some died young, violent deaths.
Skip did not follow the crowd Instead, he followed his talents, persevered through difficult times and achieved remarkable things .