Obituary: Christopher Shale Thomas, UCLA Computing and Networking Guru
Flags at UCLA flew at half-staff this week to honor Christopher Shale Thomas, computing and networking guru at UCLA for four decades. Thomas died Dec. 29, 2011, in Los Angeles, of colon cancer. He was 67.
Thomas was born in Los Angeles on April 29, 1944. His father was William H. Thomas, an engineer and entrepreneur who headed James B. Lansing Sound, the manufacturers of JBL speakers. His mother was Judith Thomas Stark, a well known Los Angeles philanthropist whose Judith S. Thomas foundation funded Theatre Vanguard.
Chris Thomas attended John Marshall High School in Los Angeles before entering UCLA, where he majored in psychology, receiving both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
In the course of his graduate studies, Thomas became involved in the then-new field of computing and began working for the UCLA Computing Center. He continued working in information technology at UCLA until a few weeks before his death.
On the occasion of Thomas’s 40th anniversary at UCLA, UCLA Vice Provost of Information Technology Jim Davis said, “Chris’s 40 years represent an amazing perspective on technology in that he was part of several generations of IT changes at UCLA. He was instrumental in building the robust computing environment we now take for granted, and his contribution to our organization and to UCLA was nothing short of remarkable.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Thomas led the systems programmers who supported UCLA’s large mainframe computers. One of his proudest achievements during that period was Bruin Online, an email system for UCLA students that ran on the mainframe. This was at a time when very few other universities provided email services to their students.
During that period, Thomas was active in the IBM mainframe user group SHARE, where he provided a bridge between the MVS and VM cultures and participated in several SHARE-wide task forces. In 1985, he was given the SHARE President’s Award in recognition of his contributions to SHARE’s strategic technical dialog with IBM. In 1987, the Virtual Machine Group in SHARE inducted him into the Order of the Knights of VM as “Sir Christopher the Sage.”
Later in his career, Thomas focused on computer networking, and it was largely through his efforts that UCLA attained leadership in high-speed networking for academic use.
As an avid fan of UCLA’s football and basketball teams, he was pleased to be able to assist the UCLA athletics department and other Pac-10 schools in setting up a process for exchanging videos of their games via the Internet-2 network rather than by courier. In 2008, he received the Innovations in Networking Award from CENIC (the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California) for this work.
Throughout his career, Chris Thomas was known for his technical prowess and his eagerness to help others. He is remembered at UCLA especially as a mentor to younger staff members. Thomas is also remembered at many other universities for his generous assistance in solving difficult technical problems.
Vice Provost Davis remarked, “He was enormously open and has trained, mentored, and advised two generations of UCLA technologists.”
He was an amateur radio operator (call signs WA6HTJ and AA6SQ) from childhood on. As a 13-year-old in 1957, he was one of the first Americans to detect the signals from Sputnik I after its launch. Throughout his life, he participated in ham radio field days. He also served as a Volunteer Examiner.
In his youth, he was an avid sailor and once sailed with his father from Baja California to Alaska. Later in life, he became an enthusiastic racquetball player.
He was a devotee of Bach, particularly the harpsichord music. He read extensively, especially in the sciences.
Thomas is survived by his cousin Professor Penelope Coates and his stepfather Milton Stark.
A memorial service will be held at 3pm on Wednesday, January 25, 2012, in room 11348 at UCLA’s Young Research Library.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Chris Thomas Memorial Fund at UCLA, which will assist the Institute for Digital Research and Education’s Research Scholar Program to employ undergraduate and graduate students to do research with faculty members and information technologists, a program in which Thomas was deeply interested. More information on this fund will be available soon.