In memoriam: David Ritchie

David Ritchie

We are saddened that our friend and former colleague David Ritchie passed away on March 7.

David began his 40-year career at Fermilab in the summer of 1971. Throughout his career, he was dedicated to and passionate about his work and serving his fellow physicists.

Over the years, David held many positions that involved different aspects of computing, including leader of the DEC Systems and the Distributed Software groups, as well as the Databases and Information Department; he was a member of several groups across the organization. For those who appreciate then-and-now anecdotes, at one point, he managed the System Administration Group, in which staff worried about such topics as adding another megabyte or two of memory to the VAX-11/780 that was being used by 20 people!

He was committed to a data acquisition program called MULTI, which allowed experimenters to record data for later analysis. Developed by Fritz Bartlett, then at Caltech, David was part of a team that worked to adopt, expand and package MULTI as a standard software package that each experiment could then easily tailor to its needs. It was of great help to the physics community.

Fritz Bartlett, original MULTI developer and David.

Over time, single-use data acquisition systems and standalone computers evolved into the internet. David led the team that published Fermilab’s first public web page in February 1994, and he served as the lab’s first webmaster.

Joe Biel, David Ritchie, Liz Quigg and Bob Dosen show a typical physics display generated by their MULTI/DA software (FermiNews Vol. 4 No. 23, June 4, 1981).

The announcement of the discovery of the top quark provided incentive to get the library website up and running to easily distribute the associated publications, a process that had previously been arduous. David teamed up with former librarian Paula Garrett to get this done. The two then published a paper about web development at the lab.

Earlier, David had worked with Paula to automate the library. “David taught me about collaboration — how differing backgrounds and approaches could eventually sync in a way that was not a compromise, but more like synergy,” she said.

Toward the end of his career, David organized Fermilab’s participation in the annual Supercomputing conference. One of the highlights of the Fermilab Supercomputing booth for several years was a giant spiral display with a timeline of computing at Fermilab. He then headed the Communications and Outreach Group, which was a natural fit for him; David was always interested in outreach. In 2005, he wrote a paper, outlining a way to talk to the public about the probability of extremely unlikely events, the Improbability Scale. He hoped it could be helpful in public policy discussion.

Paula Garrett and David Ritchie update the library acquisitions module (FermiNews, Vol. 14, No. 1, Jan. 18, 1991).

David retired in October 2011 with many on hand to offer well wishes.

“He always found a new passion as he moved on — often for something that others had given short shrift or ignored but was, in fact, useful and needed,” said Vicky White, former CIO and a longtime colleague of David’s. “He loved to interact with people all over the lab, and they welcomed his interest and enthusiasm.”

David’s enthusiasm, kindness and sense of humor touched many people. The volume of kind words about him and memories shared by former colleagues, friends and acquaintances speak to what a well-liked, respected and memorable man he was.

Marcia Teckenbrock is the communications manager for the Office of the CIO.