In Memory of John Vlissides

One year ago on Thanksgiving day, my friend John Vlissides died.
I’m sure that many of you have heard of John. He was one of the so-called “Gang of Four” who wrote the “Design Patterns” book that set off a huge fad in software engineering (and quite typically for John, he always insisted on pointing out that the reason he was the *fourth* of the GoF was *not* alphabetical). John was also a major contributor to InterViews, one of the early object-oriented GUI frameworks; and a major influence on the recently demonstrated Jazz system from IBM.
John and I didn’t agree on much. He was a passionate political conservative, and I’m about as liberal as they come. He was a deeply religious christian, and I’m jewish. Even on work issues, we tended
to disagree on most things. John was an object-oriented purist, and am very much not. I remember arguing with him once about the addition of generic types to Java, back when they were still under discussion. I thought that they were an overdue addition; John thought that they shouldn’t be there at all. His idea was that if you need a list of “X”, you should probably be defining a domain specific type that has richer semantics than just `List`, and that putting generics into the language just encouraged people to be lazy. My opinion should be well-known from the stuff I’ve written here.
But you didn’t have to agree with John. He was a genuinely terrific guy. No matter how strongly he disagreed with you, he *never* got angry. Arguing with him was always an intellectual thing, not an emotional thing. Just because he argued with you, that didn’t mean that there was any hostility.
John was an *amazing* advocate for his ideas. I often thought that he didn’t always do the best job of *picking* the ideas that he advocated, but once he bought into an idea, he was into it heart and soul, and he was positively amazing at talking about the things he believed in, from politics to
software to education to just about anything.
The other very special thing about John was that he was a fantastic *mentor*, which is something we often lack in industrial research. John always found time to sit and talk about research ideas, especially with junior researchers. He could listen to an idea, and very quickly grasp it, and ask
*exactly* the right questions that you needed to think about to fully develop the idea. And it didn’t matter whether he *liked* the idea. Even if he didn’t, he’d *still* take the time to sit with you and talk, and ask deep questions to work through the idea – and generally, he’d either ask questions that homed in on the weaknesses of the idea, so that you’d come to agree with him that it wasn’t good; or he’d listen to the answers and see that his objection was wrong.
Around three years ago, John woke up one morning, and one of his legs was numb. Tests showed that it
was a very well developed, inoperable brain cancer. It was pretty much hopeless; there was no real chance of his surviving it. They treated him to try to slow it down, to give him as much good time as they could. He handled it with astonishing dignity and grace. Even while he was dying of cancer, he continued to be the same patient listener/debater that he’d always been. He was a thoroughly good person, and all of us who knew him miss him.
Before he died, he asked that in his memory, people give money to the children’s cancer center at the Westchester county hospital. One of John’s children, his daughter Helen, had been born with cancer several years ago, and died around her first birthday. If you knew John, or were influenced by his books, why not go find a children’s cancer center near you, and donate some money in his memory?

0 thoughts on “In Memory of John Vlissides

  1. Jud

    A wonderful Thanksgiving to you and yours.
    I saw a story this morning about a young boy with a rare bone marrow cancer at St. Jude’s hospital. The kid isn’t even old enough to pronounce all his words correctly, and he still has all the grace, dignity and gumption you could want in a human being.
    Guess the universe is telling me to donate to children’s cancer treatment.

  2. Jeff

    John was certainly a great mentor, even if you weren’t technically his ‘mentee’. I had about an hour lunch with him at the Hawthorne TJ Watson a couple years back, being introduced to him as John, not John Vlissides; and him being a Computer Scientist and not a rock star or football player, I didn’t know him by face. About ten minutes into the meal I told him I thought design patterns were complete rubbish, and they only make up for the downfalls of a particular programming language. After lunch he asked if I had his book. I asked which one, as there are many Johns to have written a book. So, he invited me up to his office and gave me a copy. Needless to say, it was then my second copy.

  3. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    That’s *such* a typical John story. That’s exactly the kind of guy he was.
    And yeah, you didn’t have to be an “official” mentee. We never had *any* official relationship at work: never worked on the same project, never worked for the same manager at the same time, nothing. He worked with a friend of mine, and so we wound up eating lunch together just about every day. I talked with him a lot, because he was a great person to talk to, even if you didn’t agree with him.

  4. Pingback: Remembering John Vlissides - Ken Bauer on Teaching and Technology

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