In Memoriam: Robert Owens

March 1, 2012 — Robert Hunter Owens, the founder and the first chairman of the Department of Computer Science in the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, died Feb. 28 in Lynchburg. He was 90.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Summit, 1400 Enterprise Drive in Lynchburg.

Owens joined the engineering faculty in 1964 to lead the Division of Applied Mathematics. Two years later, he persuaded the dean, Lawrence Quarles, to promote the division to a full department and to add computer science. It was the only academic computer science department in the state at the time and offered only graduate degrees.

James A. Aylor, current dean of the Engineering School, said, "Bob had the vision to see that computer science had tremendous potential and would become indispensable to applied mathematicians and scientists. His contributions helped the Engineering School become what it is today."

The two subjects became separate departments in 1984, and Owens joined the applied math faculty. He retired from U.Va. in 1989. Applied math was later changed to a program.

"Bob was a good friend to many," wrote computer science professor Paul Reynolds and Alan Batson, professor emeritus of computer science, in an email. "Talented yet down-to-earth, he proudly displayed his Cal Tech bumper sticker on his 1953 Farmall Cub tractor. He demanded rigor in his complex variables class, but could easily transform into a fun party organizer for 75 of his best friends at his lake house. Bob Owens stories are notorious and are fondly passed along by friends who knew him."

Born in Philadelphia, Owens received his B.S. degree at the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture in 1944 and served in the United States Navy for two years. After receiving his master's degree in mathematics from Columbia University in 1948, he earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from California Institute of Technology in 1952.

Before joining the U.Va. faculty, he was associate professor of mathematics and director of the Computer Center at the University of New Hampshire and acting head of the mathematical science section at the National Science Foundation.

He is survived by his wife, Harriett Clausen Owens, four children and five grandchildren.

— By Anne Bromley

Daily Progress obituary