Betty Romer, former director of academic computing and the leader of computer technology at the college from 1968 to 1996 was interviewed by John Servos, former professor of history.
[0:00] Servos: My name’s John Servos, and I’m very glad to have the opportunity to talk with Betty Romer today about her career here at Amherst College, a career which began in 1968 and ran until 1996.
[0:13] Romer: Yes, 28 years.
[0:14] Servos: Really the period when computing became part of the culture of the College. And I thought, for starters, we might talk a little bit about how you first came to meet computers and deal with them, your early career, your education, and then move on to your years here at the- here at Amherst. Um, so, I, you know, I don't even know where you're from Betty. You sent me all this wonderful material–
[0:41] Romer: I just materialized- I just materialized by some magic force. Um, but my career really started when I graduated from Wayne. I had lived in New Jersey.
[0:50] Servos: Right.
[0:51] Romer: And I- was it, my senior year was at Wayne. I think I said to you, my personal life changed, and as my personal life changed my location changed.
[1:01] Servos: Of course.
[1:02] Romer: So my senior year was at Wayne. Uh, and I had a Bachelor of Arts, actually, degree in mathematics. Now, I was trying to think this morning just how I got my first job, and I don't know. No, [laughs] I have no recollection. I assume maybe there was a placement office at Wayne? There must have been something that told me that there was a job available at Chrysler Corporation. And Chrysler Corporation had this computer called the Card-Programmed Electronic Calculator, which had come on the market in 1949. And this was 1952. So it was very, very early in, in, in the computer world. And I, um, I seem to have gone for an interview and been hired, this is [crosstalk].
[1:50] Servos: Now, you'd been a mathematics major.
[1:52] Romer: Yes.
[1:53] Servos: It was pretty unusual for women to major in mathematics, uh, in those days, no?
[1:57] Romer: I guess so. Not so much- my first part of my education was what was then called New Jersey College for Women, now Douglas College. And since it was all women, it seemed to be a number of math majors. But yes, I think it was unusual.
[2:12] Servos: What, what attracted you to that field?
[2:14] Romer: Well, for me, it seemed easy.
[2:18] Servos: [Laughs] You just enjoyed it from as early as you can remember? [crosstalk]
[2:21] Romer: I really liked it, no I really liked it. And I was also an English minor. Because I- that was the other love, which is why I have the Bachelor of Arts degree. Um, yeah, I just- I, I- mathematics was just fun, and I really did enjoy it-
[2:35] Servos: Now, now, did you have any contact with computers or programming while you were a student?
[2:40] Romer: At Wayne University, or maybe it's still Wayne State University, I'm not sure, I actually had a job with- running a Friden, tabletop electronic computer. I mean, it's just one of those things that you- in fact, Bob, husband Bob, I think gave- wanted to give one of those to the Smithsonian.
[2:58] Servos: [Laughs].
[3:00] Romer: And the neat thing about it was that every time I, you know, if I ran a calculation, and then ran it again, I typically got different answers
[3:06] Servos: [Laughs]
[3:09] Romer: My career was not notable by any means [laughs].
[3:11] Servos: So this was essentially an electronic replacement for those hand operated calculators?
[3:16] Romer: Yeah, and this was sort of- no, actually they called it a- it actually was a hand operated thing. It was a Friden, it’s that big hulky thing that sat on a desk and you punched your numbers in and pushed keys. So it was- it had really nothing to do with computing as such. And I went for this interview at Chrysler and was hired and I don't know what their criteria were for hiring me. And I don't know what I thought I would be doing. But, um, I got introduced to that machine and a young woman who was working there already, and I haven't any recollection of what we did.
[3:52] Servos: [Laughs] Yes.
[3:52] Romer: No I really don’t.
[3:53] Servos: But you weren't there for very long.
[3:57] Romer: I was there for a year and a man who was- worked at Bendix Aviation, uh, Bendix had not yet gotten a computer, was using the one at Chrysler. At the end of the year he hired me to come and work at Bendix, and supposedly on missile programs. Uh, I'm not trying to be funny about what we did at Chrysler, but I just, I simply don't remember. I think I told you that, um, the- you could watch the machine do multiplication by successive additions.
[4:47] Servos: Yes.
[4:48] Romer: And so, chief honchos at Chrysler- Chrysler had a reputation that was not very attractive back in those days. Um, people would get off an elevator in heavy winter coats and hats and cigars and-
[4:45] Servos: [Laughs] And blow some smoke into your room?
[4:48] Romer: [Laughs] Right! And you could- you could watch division, division is successive subtraction, so people would come and say, “Oh my, isn't that exciting?”
[4:55] Servos: Yes and have no idea what was going on.
[4:58] Romer: Yeah. I, I mean- we must- obviously, we were doing something, we were working, but I'm not sure. Because now we've come so far from that. The trying- I know about the missile thing at Bendix Aviation because that was what I was told we were gonna be working on. But it's so far removed from this machine that by any standards today isn't even on the chart, you know, if you say zero to 10, this is a minus 100.
[5:22] Servos: Did you see yourself as having a future in programming at that point? Was it something that, you know, was becoming a replacement for mathematics for you? Or was it just a short term job?
[5:36] Romer: Well, um, when I was- when I was at Douglas, New Jersey College for Women, I remember taking a sociology course, which was a rather waste of time- are there any sociologists in the room?
[5:46] Servos: [Laughs]
[5:46] Romer: But in any case, the teacher, who was very charming, it was the time of the Korean War, and she said, “Oh, you know, all you really want is to get married and have children. And now with the war, you know, who knows whether that will happen, but that's your goal.” And I can say it was our goal. I mean, approaching senior year 95% of us were engaged.
[6:10] Servos: Mhmm. Yes.
[6:12] Romer: So I don't think- um, there probably were people who were interested in a career, but it was not part of the times.
[6:20] Servos: Mhmm. Yes.
[6:21] Romer: So I did math. It never occurred to me not to go to college. And I did math because I liked math. And I found it easy.
[6:30] Servos: Right.
[6:31] Romer: And, um, if I thought of working, I didn't think of anything rather than until I had kids.
[6:41] Servos: Yes. As, as- like the great majority of women did. But you were also taking some courses in the evening in mathematics?
[6:48] Romer: Yeah, after I, I graduated, I decided I would go on in math. And the only course that was available to me was something like multi-dimensional geometry. And I didn't like geometry at all, plane or otherwise [laughs].
[7:06] Servos: [Laughs]
[7:07] Romer: And the- I was taking them at, at Wayne, which was downtown at that point very close to the Art Museum, the Detroit Art Museum. And also it was then, I don't know if it still exists, the Rackham Memorial Extension School where they taught our courses. And the lure was really much too great. I really didn't like geometry. And I really didn't know why I was there. So- and I was working.
[7:36] Servos: Yes.
[7:38] Romer: I was working. So this was something I was doing in the evening and I was married.
[7:41] Servos: Right. Yeah. Very busy.
[7:43] Romer: And I, I didn't have a lot of, I mean, it probably sounds anti-feminist, but I- labels are very annoying. Because you simply are who you are, I mean, and certain things appeal to you and certain things don't. I just never particularly thought of myself in terms of career. It wasn't something I gave up, it wasn't something that I yearned for. I didn't feel overwhelmed or neglected or unrealized. It was a different time, it’s sometimes difficult for people to understand that.
[8:18] Servos: Yes. And then you took a few years off after working for Bendix.
[8:21] Romer: Well, I worked, yeah, I worked for Chrysler for a year. I worked for Bendix for a year. And then I had my two kids. And at that point, let's see, I went to Bell Telephone Laboratories, and that was totally wonderful. And by the time I got there, we were actually programming. By that I mean we were using a high level programming language. The previous experiences had actually been coding, where you took a number from one location and you said a code for adding and you added it to another location or put it someplace else. So at Bell Tele- Thank you very much [laughs] I don’t want to mark out a piece of my life!
[9:02] Servos: Well, it sticks in my mind because, of course, Bell Labs was world-famous.
[9:06] Romer: Oh, and it was wonderful. This was in Murray Hill. And I know I used to drive in, in the morning, and think to myself, I have to get so lucky. It was just a wonderful, wonderful place. And each one of us was assigned to, um, in my case it was a statistician. And so he would have these various problems, and then I would program them so that they could run on the computer.
[9:31] Servos: And you were there. This would have been the early ‘60s.
[9:34] Romer: Yeah, it was, um, ‘60 to ‘61. And then in ‘62, I moved to Ann Arbor and then subsequently- I mean, it sounds like I was on the run [laughs]. Not true, I wasn’t!
[9:49] Servos: But, but Bell Labs, it must have been an exciting place. Did-
[9:52] Romer: Oh, it was wonderful. It was, it was wonderful because my working at, um, Brookhaven, as I say the work there was nothing that related really, to anything that came later. But the atmosphere of Brookhaven was like a university. And when I got to Bell Labs, it was the same way. If you had work to do, um, you could do it whenever. I mean, you could come in on Saturday if you wanted to, if you needed. It was-
[10:19] Servos: Ideal when you have small children.
[10:21] Romer: It was very ideal. Also, you could just be who you were. There were people who never came out of their rooms. There were people who paced, I remember there was one man who paced back and forth endlessly. It was just, um, a very- I don't mean that people in colleges pace, but some of them do. It was, um, it just had a very easy kind of atmosphere where you were doing your work and it was exciting. And programming always has that wonderful- or at least back then, I think still, where you got a right answer. And if you didn't get a right answer, then there was something wrong with the program. So it wasn't-
[11:04] Servos: And you knew it, by the way.
[11:05] Romer: And you knew. It wasn't quite like having a discussion about a book or an author or whatever, history.
[11:11] Servos: It ran or it didn't run.
[11:13] Romer: It ran or it didn’t run-
[11:14] Servos: But sometimes it took a while to find out didn't it?
[11:17] Romer: Uh, yes, it did. At Bell Telephone Laboratories, we would submit a deck that had our program, various program statements. And then if it didn't run, you would get a bad message back.
[11:31] Servos: We're so used to random access memory and getting right into the machine. But of course at that time you had to wait sometimes days to have your program tried out.
[11:40] Romer: It made you careful. No, no, you- the program, the machine was- I don't remember what the name of it was. It was a huge IBM machine by those standards. And our programs got run fairly- you know, in a- pretty rapidly but there was a long line of people whose programs were being run. So if you screwed up, excuse me, then you went to the end of the line. You learn to be quite careful not to mistype something or not- also when a program runs if it has many, many iterations, it may work initially and not subsequently and so you might be patting yourself on the back and then try it with more variables and discover that there was a, there was a flaw somewhere.
[12:23] Servos: Now, Bell becomes famous for its work on Unix later on. Were they-
[12:28] Romer: Yes, it does. No, that was after my time.
[12:29] Servos: After your time.
[12:31] Romer: But it was interesting. We were talking about telephones where you could- sort of video telephones. And it seemed like some sort of dream.
[12:42] Servos: Now, were you learning new programming languages?
[12:45] Romer: I learned Fortran. Fortran was the language of choice then. BASIC, I believe at that time was being done at Dartmouth. But Fortran was a step beyond BASIC and that's what-
[12:56] Servos: And COBOL would have been used in the business world.
[12:59] Romer: In business. Yeah, I remember one summer at Amherst, I decided, because summers were very slow and sort of torturous because of it, that I would teach myself COBOL. And then for someone who liked academic programming or scientific programming, COBOL was a big headache. [Laughs] It wasn't interesting at all.
[13:20] Servos: Yes, that- a difference in the elegance of it or?
[13:24] Romer: Um, it was geared to manipulating data in a way that wasn't the same as using data as input to a scientific program. The program is really the essential thing in processing.
[13:40] Servos: Now, you were working in a small office at Bell?
[13:44] Romer: Well, there were four of us, women, in this office, and all very, very smart. So the environment was, it was just a wonderful place to be. The man I worked for was wonderful. It was just fun going in and he’s saying, “Well, we're trying to solve this for multiple roots of something, so if you could work on a program.” And, um, I became a fanatic. I mean, when I wasn't working on a program, I was thinking about a program. I mean, it's very seductive.
[14:17] Servos: Yes, yes.
[14:19] Romer: And addictive. Uh, and the people in my office, we were, we got to be all friends. And they were all very, very smart. And they'd been there longer than I had. And so they were working on more advanced things. Still Fortran, but working on more advanced things than I was. I just loved it. I loved being there.
[14:39] Servos: So at this point, it sounds to me like you're thinking this is, this is something I could do for, for quite a few years.
[14:45] Romer: No.
[14:46] Servos: No! Not yet? [Laughs]
[14:48] Romer: What is that? Murphy's Law? [Laughs] It sounds- it sounds good. No, I didn't- I really didn't think in those- maybe it was a failure of imagination on my part, I simply did not think in terms of the implications of what I was doing for the future. And I think more than anything else, if, if, I had a career at Amherst, and I think it's fair to say that I did, what drove that was my personal life. The needs, financial needs, as my personal life changed. So it was, it was not driven by any greater vision of glory or satisfaction or anything like that.
[15:35] Servos: But you did know you enjoy that puzzle solving.
[15:37] Romer: I knew I loved it. And I got extremely good at finding errors in programs. I mean, I began to be the guru on if your program didn't work, if it was a Fortran program. I don't know if that's, um, praiseworthy or not, but I was very good at it. Yeah, I loved it. I really loved it. I loved the atmosphere. I loved being at Bell. And how I could have forgotten it, even momentarily, I don't know, because it was a very, very special time.
[16:09] Servos: And then you move to Amherst a little bit later on in the 60s.
[16:12] Romer: Yeah, I went from Bell Telephone to Ann Arbor, and decided not to take the job I was offered at University of Michigan, and then came to Amherst. And I came to Amherst in ‘63. And my children were small. And in ‘68, for a variety of reasons, I decided I wanted to work. And I contacted them first at, um, University of Massachusetts. And I wanted a part time job because of the children. And they didn't have any part time jobs. And I, um, came to the personnel office here, and the woman said, “Well, they're not looking for anybody here.” She didn’t know much about what passed for computing back then.
[17:02] But she said, “George Dunnington is someone, I mean, if you really want to, it's a waste of your time, George Dunnington is in charge.” And it just so happened that I knew George. So I thought, “Well, I mean, if I go to see him, it will be a pleasant visit.” Also, it was very delightful because I had a friend who told me that I would not get a job in computing. And that I would not get a part time job in computing. And within a day or two I had a part time [laughing] job in computing.
[17:34] Servos: [Laughs] You were told this because it's a small town and there weren’t-
[17:37] Romer: No, because- I don't know. She had [laughing] a- about everything but she- Yeah, I guess you know, it's very hard to find a job. Actually, I saw George and he said that they had just gotten installed, um, the IBM 1130. And what its future was, nobody seemed to know. And at that point, students had pretty much taken over. George's expertise was in what was then called administrative computing.
[18:06] Servos: Now this computer had been purchased for academic use, and no one really knew what to do with it? Is-
[18:12] Romer: Something like that. And I wrote to Richard Fink, because I think he was involved but I don't even know if he's in the country, I haven't- if I- you know, maybe at some point I can add some information about the year, you know, who was involved in the purchase. And I'm sure that since the machine cost 100K, I would think that they probably got some sort of grant but I don't know the particulars at all. But there it was, students were running it. Faculty members were threatening all kinds of punitive measures if they didn't quit hanging around the machine.
[18:45] Servos: [Laughs]
[18:46] Romer: I remember Dudley Towne was especially angry because it was physics. The people who would inevitably be attracted to it would be people in math or physics or other sciences, so. Yeah, they- so they were running it and, um, the basement of Converse was like a quad. So you had offices all around the perimeter. And then the center room, the hole in the doughnut, so to speak, was divided in half. And the administrative computer was in one half. And the academic, the 1130 was put in the other half. And it took up, took up a half. Um, but there was-
[19:29] Servos: So you talked with George and, and, uh-
[19:31] Romer: And George said, “Oh, why don't you see me during the summer? “Because I really don't know quite-” well, it was very congenial. We knew, I mean, we didn't know each other, but we knew each other to say hi. And then that summer, I was at Louis’ supermarket, which used to be where CVS is
[19:48] Servos: Remember it well, yes.
[19:49] Romer: And I was, this was a, an absolutely pivotal moment in my life. I was at the meat counter [laughs].
[19:56] Romer: And George was at meat counter [laughs].
[19:59] Servos: This was 1968?
[20:01] Romer: This was 1968. And George said, “Why don't you come and work for us?” so-
[20:06] Servos: So you were offered a job by the bologna and the ham [laughs].
[20:11] Romer: It was a life changing decision. It really was. Uh, and part time was fine because there was no sense of who I was- not so much who I was because I probably had more experience over the years. I mean, I had more experience than most people they would find at that point, but what they wanted to do with it, how would it be handled? It was all just unknown, actually. Unknown.
[20:45] Servos: So you really weren't given a job description?
[20:48] Romer: No, I wasn't given a job description. Uh, my title was clerk.
[20:52] Servos: Oh [laughs]. How elevated.
[20:57] Romer: Fortunately, [laughing] ego hasn't ever been one of my problems- anyway-
[21:01] Servos: I think you also told me in an earlier conversation about your pay-
[21:06] Romer: Yeah, my pay was $2.50 an hour- that is 2 dollars and 50 cents an hour. And I think in a month I took home something like $190 for the hours I worked.
[21:18] Servos: Must have been terribly depressing being within this large windowless room.
[21:23] Romer: It, it actually was hard. Um, I found myself doing things that wouldn't typically be true of me. I couldn't go into a restaurant that was dark. And I really craved light. When I left there, I really want- it was also fluorescent, you know, which is very unkind. Initially, not so bad, but over time, it really became important to go and sit on the steps outside of Converse.
[21:53] Servos: So this job started as a part time clerkship.
[21:56] Romer: Clerkship for $2.50 an hour.
[21:59] Servos: [Laughs] And quickly evolved into something more than that.
[22:01] Romer: Yes, well, first of all, George said to me, could you teach Fortran in the evenings? And I said, um- well, I, I probably was sort of more, um- less outspoken then than I might be now, so I didn't say, “for $2.50 an hour?!” [Laughs] which I might do now. But I said, “Well, I, I don't know. I mean, coming back in the evening…” something like that. Anyway, he allowed that if you worked in the evening, you got a 25% raise. And I, I really [laughs] remember how that was resolved.
[22:44] Servos: [Laughs] Now the idea was to be teaching the Fortran to interested students, or?
[22:48] Romer: To interest students and, um, and of course, it was non-credit, because anything else-
[22: 56] Servos: But also faculty would- could anyone have taken that?
[22:58] Romer: there was only- no there was some business people. I remember somebody who worked for George. And that was kind of funny because he had a weird habit of going like [laughs and gestures] going like this when I was trying to teach. And initially, I didn’t know it was a habit. This is disconcerting, he was a very large man.
[23:21] Servos: I can imagine [laughs].
[23:22] Romer: And, um, so that was a really good experience. I had tutored when I was in high school, tutored kids on math and so forth. So I'd had some experience trying to explain things but, um, I really- an approach to programming. I did it over a few years and it really changed over time. I got better at it. Better from their point of view.
[23:50] Servos: So you're teaching courses on Fortran in the evening, you're trying to make sense of this, this mission for-
[23:59] Romer: Oh, right.
[23:59] Servos: -trying to find the proper mission for the computer, I guess.
[24:02] Romer: Oh, yeah, I, you know, was talking to my son about that. About how, ‘cause it's true of him, you get into a job and it's just right for you. If it hadn't been right for me, I would not have been there for 28 years, not because I would have made the decision but somebody else would have made the decision. Some things, just by force of luck or good fortune or right elements aligning properly, the comets, the clouds, the planets aligning, you just find yourself in some place where it's just right.
[24:38] Servos: And there were already, in addition to some faculty, interested in the machine, a group of students who had made the basement their own.
[24:46] Romer: Oh well I- absolutely their own. So George said to me, your first job will be cleaning up the place. Well, I've had a lot of experience cleaning [laughs] as a mother and a wife. Oh, well that's a cinch. And I remember there was one student- I've never been in touch with him since, I remember his name though, Tom Hudson, who helped me. We really started- I mean, manuals were strewn all over the floor and, I mean it was a mess. This one office that I claimed as mine was, of course, in reality, not mine at all. It was shared by all the students- and me.
[25:24] And, um, some of them, well, it was a peculiar bit of coincidence. One of the people I contacted said that, did I know anything about a student named David Hill, who was a philosophy major who had graduated in- he was there for my first year. And that was funny because I had thought of him occasionally. He really didn't want me in that office. He really didn't. [Laughing] And he would stand outside the door and make funny noises and stamp his feet, you know. [Stamps feet] And I would pretend not to hear and not to see. Um, so I was an intruder. And that sorted itself out very quickly because-
[26:18] Servos: What were the students doing with the machine?
[26:20] Romer: Who knows?
[26:22] Servos: [Laughs] Didn't want to know?
[26:24] Romer: I don't think- this sounds terrible for someone who was supposed to be in charge- I don't think I ever knew exactly what they were doing. When I came, the machine- the system, the operating system was extremely unstable. It- the word would be crashed. Subsequent versions, called modifications back then, corrected what was wrong but it was very unstable. And when it crashed, that is everything stopped, you had to take a humongous deck of cards and put them through, so, a lot of time.
[27:02] Servos: Yes, that was rebooting.
[27:03] Romer: Was rebooting, you know, or trying to get the operating system which somehow had been damaged because of failures within itself, internally. Um, so I don't know, I don't know what, I don't know what they were doing. Anyway, I know that when I asked questions, I got the wrong answers. So, I was fortunate enough to suspect that I got the wrong answers rather than acting on those answers.
[27:30] Uh, there was a wonderful book that came out about that time called the IBM 1130. I still have a copy of it. Bob said he bought it too. And that corrected things, but, but we all got to be close. I mean, the ones who were really resentful had the good graces to graduate at the end of [laughs] ‘69.
[27:52] Servos: [Laughs] Now, at some point, your title changes from clerk to coordinator of academic computing-
[27:57] Romer: Oh, yeah, that's right. So I work part time. That was I guess, five hours. And then I wanted to be home for my children. Who were then 10 and 12, I guess? And then I noticed my children never came home. They came to the [laughter] computer center-
[28:16] Servos: More interesting.
[28:17] Romer: More interesting and, um, and at that point, well, yeah, at one point I extended it a few more hour- I didn't take lunch. And so I went another hour or so. And then the second year, I just extended it, so it was full time and got a salary. And yeah, at some point, I became academic coordinator. George made up that title. Nobody pretty much knew what it meant, but it meant, it meant something. It was a name that was certainly better than clerk.
[28:48] Servos: And, has the- have you defined a mission for the computer yet and the center, the evolving center?
[28:58] Romer: Uh, well. Um-
[29:01] Servos: I'm just trying to imagine, you know, walking into those circumstances-
[29:03] Romer: What do we do, what do we do. Well, there were departments that were using it. Bob, Bob's physics, Beginning Physics 13- I don't know if the numbers are still the same- was using it for something called the “falling rock problem.” And that went on for years. So much so that one of the students put a sign on the door saying “this is the falling jock computer center”
[29:24] Servos: [Laughs]
[29:28] Romer: Part- there were, there were various aspects, it seems to me that I just intuitively embraced. One was the work that faculty members might do. There were no computer science courses then. There was, before there was computer science on this campus, there was computer science as a part of mathematics with a focus on computers, and then eventually computer science. So any work that students did went in two categories, one was connected with coursework, and the other was self motivated.
[30:06] Well I- it seemed to me I had two jobs. One was, as time went on, to keep the computer safe for those who needed to use it for their work. And the other was to make it possible for the creative, inventive people to do things that was creative as they wanted to do. And in order to allow that I had to depend on the fact that the students who were creative would respect the computer. And they did. That's why when Bob, I read you that about Bob saying, “I said, ‘Don't ever do that again.’” He had no intention of hurting anything. This was not supposed to upset anything. They were extraordinary. You know, I think that they were attracted to creation time. One of them went on to get an honorary degree from Amherst College.
[30:59] Servos: Who was that?
[31:00] Romer: Stephen Goff, I don't know if you know him, I think in ‘96. They all had, well, Bob Bruner, a mathematics professor at Wayne, the others were involved in computers in one way or another. They were all very smart and very creative. And trying to think why- I was having a conversation the other day about art- why at certain times, you have all of these wonderful artists or why at the beginning, actually, we were talking about creation time for the United States, why there were all those really remarkable people. Perhaps the explanation of why there were so many remarkable computer people is because it was creation time. And because there was an enormous amount of freedom that I gave them. And they all mentioned that, that this was just here all these years later in what they have written. They all mentioned the enormous freedom that they had. And as a result, we had things on the 1130 that nobody else had.
[32:05] Servos: Such as?
[32:08] Romer: Well, Lisp, which is a special kind of language, which in no way should have been able to run on an 1130 ran on the 1130. They even had a very primitive kind of word processing on the 1130. We had Space Wars on the 1130. And that, of course, as one of them who created it said, I had to become an administrator then and say, no, you couldn't play it all the time. [Laugh]
[32:35] Servos: And of course, this was years before there was a commercial version out there-
[32:38] Romer: Absolutely, years years before. I mean, there's a long list of them which are just amazing, amazing things. In fact, one of them wondered whether when Space Wars, as it was called, came out as a professional product, they didn't use- Doug Weber was his name- his program as a basis for it. And I didn't know what they were doing and I'm not sure I would have understood the nuts and bolts. They talked about the fact that at that time it was one person, user, at a time. So that whatever this computer had to offer to a user was all his or hers. Well, there were no hers.
[33:24] Servos: Right.
[33:24] Romer: There were no hers. And so they got to it. And one of them talks about how it had all of the parts that would later be very sophisticated in more sophisticated computers, but they were- all the parts were there. I don't mean the hardware, but the software possibilities, and some hardware, and so they were able to try things and do things. I mean, [crosstalk] the things they wrote me were amazing-
[33:50] Servos: [crosstalk] And get a better sense of the whole, yeah.
[33:50] Romer: -amazing, just amazing. In fact, I, at some point think that-
[33:53] Servos: Would you say this, you could identify a special culture, a distinct culture emerging here- subculture- within the college?
[34:03] Romer: At that time, there were five of- there were two others, but they were not part of a group that was with me all the time, although amusingly enough to me, one of them, a guy named David Silverman walked around barefoot, with long hair down to here [points to shoulders] and a band around his head. And many years later, when I was looking at a promotional film for Digital Equipment Corporation, I looked at someone in a three piece suit. [Laughs]
[34:31] Romer: With very, very short hair. Not a great deal. And I thought, “Oh, my God” comes- I mean, there was, there was just a weird time. I remember opening a drawer in a file cabinet where I kept- I mean some of the drawers were for me to keep things and I found somebody’s food in it. And when I asked around, it was a student who was at Hampshire College, I guess. And I said, you know, his name was Bob [?]- I met- you remember the most unlikely things, names that is, for instance, and I said to him, you know, “Hey, what's your food doing in my drawer?” And he said to me, “Well, we're together you know, it's, you know, what's yours is mine and what's mine is yours.” And I remember saying “No, uh-uh, nope.” [Laughs] And he couldn't understand why I wanted all his food out of my drawer.
[35:28] It was an amazing, amazing time. When I wrote to these people, I said, two of them- two- always had their feet up on my desk, no shoes. And both of them wrote back. I said, I remember, you know, I remember those feet and they wrote back and they said, “To this day,” both of them said, the mathematics professor and the other one who is involved in high level computing, “I can't think unless my feet are on the desk.”
[35:56] Servos: Did it change much when the college went co-ed, did you notice a shift of any sort? In the-
[36:03] Romer: It was a long time. What was the year 1980?
[36:07] Servos: ‘76 is when we-
[36:07] Romer: Was it ‘76?
[36:08] Servos: Began to accept women I believe.
[36:11] Romer: Well, it changed before that. Because that group graduated in ‘73. And one of the people who came to visit me this last week, graduated in ‘77. And he still remembers enormous amounts of freedom. Although he also remembers that I had to impose some rules about Space Wars. But it was slowly changing because computers were being, although I don't remember all the disciplines, it was being used more, I assume that some professors were using it. And then students were using it for theses. I mean it began-
[36:56] Servos: By the end of the 70s, yeah.
[36:58] Romer: -yeah, it began to be in these elements of students using it in connection with coursework. That became not just as part of the coursework, but essentially part in the sense that if you're doing a thesis in something, it's connected with a particular discipline. And I can tell you, I’ve always welcomed people from the outside. When we got into Seeley Mudd and they were personal computers, I would say, you know, in the summer it's fine because there aren't many students, you can't take a computer that a student needs.
[37:35] But back at the beginning when there was just the one machine it made for a really rich environment. I mean, faculty kids came and used the machine. People wandered in. I just had this feeling that it could only make it richer, and it did. It really did make it richer. And I remember Bob’s son, Ted, whom I knew early on. Bob says he must have been 16. I remember him being younger than that, where I needed someone to do some basic documentation introductory to this statistical package for the social sciences. And Ted arrived and I said, Ted, here's some documentation. Write me an introduction. I always assume that everybody can do everything. And he did you know, so.
[38:27] But as I was saying, so there was a teacher at high school, maybe she was at the grade school. And she used to run valentines on the computer because we at that time had gotten- we had Space Wars, we had a graphic terminal- and she would run valentines at Valentine's Day for her students.
[38:48] Servos: Cards.
[38:50] Romer: Well on paper. We didn’t have cards, but your paper would go through the thing and come out with valentines [laughs]. And a student, Peter Walford- I remember his name too- was running material connected with his thesis. And back then if you had to run a lot of calculations, you were talking about a program running all night. And you were lucky if it ran all night and finished. Well, oh, her name was Rita [Liveral]. She signed up for something like nine o'clock in the morning to run her valentines, I guess we must have been in February? Although I don't know why was doing a thesis in February- whatever she was doing, and Peters was running. And she aborted it because it was her time.
[39:37] Servos: [Laughs] Yes, I can imagine that.
[39:41] Romer: [laughs] So I was, by the way, as an aside, people called me during the night. I mean, if- the computer center was open all the time. So people would do things in the middle- and they would call me if there were problems and I got very good at answering the phone and acting as if I had been awake forever and then going back to sleep, so.
[40:01] Romer: Um, but anyway, I- Peter was furious, furious doesn't tell it. And I had to tell Rita that while I really enjoyed our relationship. She just kept saying, “But it was my time” and I thought, “Well, yeah, that really means that you can't work here, because if you really thought that was the issue-”
[40:27] Servos: So, so students would, there was a signup chart for the time on the computer and-
[40:32] Romer: I guess, yeah, I guess they would-
[40:33] Servos: Students would sign up. How far in advance did you have to think in order to make use of the machine?
[40:40] Romer: Um, I don't think many people were running through the night. I mean, it was, it was not- there weren't- see the early days there wasn't enough traffic. There wasn't enough that you could do. Yeah, thesis students and people running special projects, but it was still limited. So it was easy. It was easy. Um, I can't remember the dates, I wrote to someone who would have, but I didn't hear from him, where they ran the football analysis on the 1130. So they would, they’d play a game on Saturday. And then Sunday, Rod Shepherdson, who worked- for what's his name? The coach, how could I forget his name?
[41:25] Servos: Um, Ostendarp.
[41:26] Romer: You got it. Ostendarp. Rod would come in with all of the figures, all of the analysis or whatever input was going to this football program. And Rod, who turned out to be a very sweet guy afterward, sort of came across as a maybe concentration camp guard. And he would walk into the computer center, and with- he’d pull the cards out of the drawer, and he'd say to everybody, “Everybody out!”
[42:02] Romer: And um, people would say to me, how can you- I mean, every, for whatever was being done in theory anyway, every department had a right, as much right, as every other department. That really became an issue with word processing.
[42:17] Servos: So you're in an interesting position here, you're adjudicating competing demands between students and faculty, among students and occasional, occasional outsiders. And it's, uh, your position is surrounded with conflict, I imagine.
[42:34] Romer: I do well with that. I know that Catherine Bateson mentioned me in her first book about how I- any number of things going on simultaneously, I did not- that's another thing, if temperamentally- in a computer as it got more sophisticated- John Manley or someone else on the staff, because by then I had a number of people, would come in and say, “you're not going to want to hear this.” That was the first thing in the morning.
[43:02] If you don't have the right kind of temperament, then you can't, you can't do that. And when I would hire people, when I eventually got to a point where I could hi- most of the staff I have- and that's another story- were people- students- who had stayed on, so I knew them, they knew the center, they knew the college. But if I hired someone, it really when I hired Margaret Stancer, I really had to know that they were not going to freak out as things got hectic. You just can't, and you can't lose it either. That never helps in tense situations and, and they were tense situations when people had their work done. So that was just another thing that had to be a good fit. And I didn't mind at all.
[43:51] Servos: During these years, and I’m speaking here of the late ‘60s, ‘70s as the center is evolving, are you looking at other college computer centers? And trying to find out what's going on up the road at Dartmouth or what's going on over at Williams or?
[44:12] Romer: Well, I think, um, Dartmouth is a thing apart. They were into time sharing early and- but the other colleges, Williams, Swarthmore, Smith, and Amherst all have the same computer, and they all got rid of them at the same time. And there were other possibilities as Digital Equipment Corporation was born. And having witnessed the demise of Digital and- I'm sorry, I, my years are not clear, but it came much later, it came at the time of personal computers. I remember well how we went to Digital, where we still have the 1130 and before the first major computer we got which was the Vax 11780, we went to Digital to explore other alternatives. And it was in a mill, an old mill in Maynard.
[45:03] Servos: Right. I remember, yes.
[45:03] Romer: And everyone was young and excited. And it was just, it was a wonderful, wonderful time. So from that time, which- we got the Vax in ‘79. So somewhere between ‘68 and ‘79, we went to Maynard. And very fortunately, I mean, some of the students wanted to see us getting something better. They had wanted- at UMass, they had something called a PDP 15. But all of those really wouldn't have worked for us. So it was, it was excellent that our decision got, for whatever reason, got postponed until something really viable arrived on the scene.
[45:46] Servos: But I'm thinking in shaping policies. Here you are, you're trying to develop a framework for computing at the college. Something new. There are, I imagine, all sorts of issues that you have to consider ranging from allocation of time and resources to eventually things like copyright. And are you, are you doing this? Are you inventing in-house? Or are you, is there a culture of emerging computer center coordinators out there that you're part of and you're finding out what's happening here and what's happening there and taking ideas from others? To what extent, in other words, is this purely an Amherst College story? And to what extent are you a part of a larger network?
[46:35] Romer: Well, whenever I went to computer conferences- I'm not big on conferences- It was clear that we were different because we were much more open. We were much more oriented toward what- well, Steve George paid me a big compliment after I left. And, um, he said one of the things that he appreciated was that I always said- he’d say “well you know, I know you're not going to be able to do this and you probably” and I would say to him, “just tell me what you want to do.” And then, if we can do it, we will and if there's some reason why we can't, but let's start with you telling me what you want to do.
[47:16] And that was, I mean, it sounds as if it was- it wasn't chaotic. You had faculty members. One of the problems, of course, was I had no staff. I was totally dependent on students. I didn't get my first staff member until 1982. And then that person, who also just came to visit me, was hired because we needed someone to fill the role of something called VAX Systems Manager.
[47:47] Servos: This was after we got our first VAX, right.
[47:49] Romer: After we got our first VAX, but before that, everything was dependent on students. And so, fortunately for me, there were a lot of dedicated students. But you know, I was saying to Bob last night that it's interesting to me to have been part of a time when the College, first of all kind of put this, if you can talk about it as an aside, a computer, and then without perhaps consciously doing it, denied its existence for all of almost- most of the time that I was there. Now, we were in a beautiful building and we had equipment, but there was still the business of: this is not going to take over the College. This is a black hole. And if we- so that Duane Bailey would figure out which faculty member could get a new computer in a given year.
[48:51] I would say that we would only support software at the current version, and that everybody had to have a license. We couldn't support anything- I mean, I had to make that decision. It wasn't licensed. But where were they going to get the money from became an issue. Out of their budgets? But their budgets didn't have line items for software early on.
[49:12] Servos: Do you think this was largely a matter of economy? Or was it more of a reflection of the level of knowledge of the administrators at the college?
[49:24] Romer: I think, of course I don't know what people were thinking. I do know that at some point early on with the 1130, we needed another disk drive, which was a storage place and Smith was always ahead of us economically. Smith spent a lot of money. And Amherst did not and Kurt Hertzfeld saw me in the hall. And he said to me, “You're a housewife, aren't you?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, [laughs] he said “You know about budgets?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, we're getting you this disk drive, but that's it.” [Laughs]
[50:03] Romer: And I thought, I thought- he's a very sweet man, and I like him and we see him in, you know, emeriti dinners and so forth. But I think that, you know, you have a budget, you have things allocated for all manner of things. And then this monster and you, you don't know that it's going to be a monster. But it becomes clearer as time goes by, that it is eating up more and more resources and you haven't finally taken the plunge. That this is just something where there's no sense in deciding which faculty member is going to get a new computer, they all are going to get a new computer. And you're going to have to- I remember faculty members upset because some people, of course, have come here [hearing aid beeps]- um, excuse me- with everything but the dissertation, some young faculty members which they finished their first year, and printing it in the computer center was insane. Because we did not, some places had printing behind a closed area. And they had someone who took the printing off the printer and put it in a cubby hole. And then a faculty or student would come and get the printout. That was where you printed your answers. We didn't have anything like that. So I had signs up. And I had, at a certain point I started meeting, when we started to have a lot of supervisors, I would come in every Monday evening to meet with them because some of them worked later after I'd left and I said I hadn't, I couldn't have people working with me whom I didn't meet with. And I would say to them “Now look, when paper comes off the printer” and I had cubbyholes put up, A through Z. And I said “when printing, what you have to do, you have to fold it up and put it away. Where it should be.” Well what happened was if someone printed out a lot, the supervisor would think “Yeah, nuts to this,” and throw it in the basket [laughs].
[52:08] Romer: So if, if people were trying to print out a thesis, they needed their own printer. And of course, the time came when anything else would have been unthinkable. How could you- how could you work a computer if you couldn’t print anything out? Um it, it, you know, you had to have software, you had to have support. When we became a campus of computer users, we had people who had no more sense of how to use a computer, any feel for it- it was a demon. And you had to have support people. The dollars start adding up and I had to literally fight for every employee I had.
[52:48] Servos: And this really, you really don't get employees until-
[52:53] Romer: 1982
[52:55] Servos: ‘82. Long way down the road [crosstalk] from where you started.
[52:57] Romer: a long way down the road. By then I was the director. And-
[53:00] Servos: that was after the VAX arrived.
[53:04] Romer: Right, well, it was the VAX arrival was the moment at which I got to be director.
[53:08] Servos: Right. Right.
[53:09] Romer: And um-
[53:11] Servos: And you're just thinking about moving into the new building, into Seeley Mudd.
[53:14] Romer: That was ‘84.
[53:15] Servos: Okay.
[53:16] Romer: So we were still in the basement. Well what happened- the way I got a staff- Well, Margaret, I had for 15 hours a week. And that was because I went to Dave Howland and said, it doesn't have to be as bad as it is. [Laughs] I got Margaret. Students would work for me. And then I set up a postgraduate position, which still exists.
[53:46] Servos: A Green Dean position.
[53:47] Romer: A Green Dean sort of thing. And so one of the students would apply for it, and they were all great, and get it. And then they would stay and they would stay. And then I would go and say, “Well, they’ve been here, you know, I mean, we've got to make this into a permanent position. So that would be the second staff member. And every staff member I got- Paul Chapin and was different because he filled a position that a regular- that had been made that way by someone staying and then a position was formed, and then that person left. And so that was a way that positions got filled. But a lot of that happened after I left. So each one was an argument about- I don't know where all that correspondence was, but there were endless things about-
[54:35] Servos: To whom were you reporting during these years?
[54:37] Romer: Well, I reported to the Dean of the Faculty, which of course, changed radically and I think they were all sympathetic. But Dick Fink was the only one who said, he said, “I've put away money for you, so that, if in addition to what you have, you need another person, I have money for it” and if- I didn't faint but I could have.
[55:09] Romer: Money? Aside? For me? I don’t think so. Wrong girl.
[55:12] Servos: Well, coming out of chemistry, he understood-
[55:16] Servos: The situation you faced, I imagine, better than many would have.
[55:19] Romer: So I can tell you other things that would sound even, make it all sound even more chaotic. At a certain point when word processing became a possibility, and this is prior to faculty getting across the campus, certain people were. We began to need a printer that would print something that was better quality than a line printer, or a dot matrix printer. So we got something called a spinwriter.
[56:00] Servos: I remember them. NEC Spinwriters.
[56:01] Romer: The NEC Spinwriter. And we got a number of different, they were called balls, so that you could get a different kind of type. And I think you could even get some mathematical symbols. Now people would sign up for different type balls. So that was another level of complexity. And then we got two Spinwriters and one was in my office, still B3. And I had that going all day long [laughs], the Spinwriter. I would go home and I would think, I think I'll shut off the refrigerator because-
[56:37] Romer: So, but that somehow, that's what it would appear like on surface. But there was a structure underneath. And I think as we went along into Seeley Mudd, and even the numbers multiplied, the people who worked as supervisor all knew it and people told me when they went on to jobs of their own, they followed the same pattern. There was an underlying structure. You had to be concerned about the computer. You had to behave honorably. There was to be no fooling around. And you had to have some sense of decorum. That it was really important. There was none of this- except for that ‘I think therefore I am.’ People didn't do things that were damaging. And the students all cared about the system and they gave incredible amounts of time to the center, and it formed, still a brotherhood. That was really quite wonderful and the ones who were there remember it as being a most, most special time.
[57:56] Servos: Now, you move to Seeley Mudd in ‘84. Did you have much input into the planning of the quarters you were moving into? Did- how did it happen that you, you got the basement of Seeley Mudd?
[58:11] Romer: It was not the base- I said I would not work in a basement, so we called it the first floor.
[58:19] Romer: [Laughs] I said I wouldn’t work in a basement! I wasn't gonna get in an elevator that said B, took me to my floor.
[58:27] Servos: And they gave you some windows.
[58:29] Romer: They gave me a lot of windows. Julian Gibbs wanted a building for computers and sciences- mathematics, I'm sorry, he wanted a building for the computer center and mathematics. The mathematicians were not happy about that. They liked, however, those steps. [Laughs] whatever obstacle the steps were in Appleton. Uh, not Appleton. Math building was one at the other end.
[59:06] Servos: Uh, Williston?
[59:07] Romer: Williston.
[59:08] Servos: Was it in Williston? This was before my time, I think.
[59:11] Romer: Yeah, I think Williston. It’s the first- as you go around past Frost Library, the first one is Williston.
[59:14] Servos: First one is Willison
[59:15] Romer: Yeah, terrible steps. A classroom on the first floor and I think they were on the second or third floor, but all of their offices were on the same floor. And there was a large room that served as a study room, library. And so it was an extremely congenial atmosphere for them, easy to get into each other's offices to talk, congenial. And they said if they were going to move which they didn't want to do, and I think David Armacost, I mean, he didn't have to be chairlifted out but-
[59:46] Romer: -in a sense he did. Um, that they wanted to be on the same, they wanted the same setup. And of course, when Edward Larrabee Barnes who was the architectural firm that was hired, and I don't know how that was decided. Well, first there had to be something local that was done to show that with the money they had, which was not a great deal, that it was a possible project. And so they drew up some plans with no intention that they would ever be used. And then Edward Larabee Barnes was hired. And he came out and it had what it has now, a tower. And the tower was for the mathematicians. The first floor of the building, now the second floor of the building, which was the first floor of the building, was for classrooms. And so the mathematicians were not on the same floor, and they were very upset about that. And Duane, at that point, felt that [crosstalk]
[1:00:39] Servos: This is Duane Bailey?
[1:00:40] Romer: we didn't really do anything- Duane Bailey felt we didn't need a computer center. And he was usually right, and in that he was wrong. So I think we started out with not the resources that we needed. But once a decision was made to do it, it was all dumped into my lap. And the person who designed the- design in quotes- the computer center was, someone whose name escapes me at the moment, but he was a new Harvard graduate. And he had joined the firm and he knew nothing about computing at all. And he drew up something which was immediately obvious as impossible.
[1:01:29] He had a lot of little cells off on both sides of a corridor. And so it was left to me and the students. And the students were- one student who left, didn't graduate from Amherst, he went back to Puerto Rico- designed really the basis of what we used as the computer center with a big open air. I don't know what it's like now. I never went back.
[1:01:55] Servos: Is that the fishbowl? What they called the fishbowl?
[1:01:57] Romer: No, the fishbowl was what I did.
[1:02:00] Servos: Yeah, I saw John Manly credit you with the invention of the fishbowl-
[1:02:03] Romer: Of the fishbowl.
[1:02:03] Servos: And I couldn’t figure out what that was exactly.
[1:02:06] Romer: It’s probably not there anymore. Yeah, okay, well, you came into the computer center, and there were offices on both sides, and that was a great big open area with a table and chairs, I don't know if it's there anymore. And then in the back were cubby holes with all kinds of documentation, and this was a place for students to wait if a terminal wasn't ready, to do their homework, to study. That was really important. And this student designed that and then we had all the cabling that we had to figure out and George Watson who was the first employee, figured all of that out. And then every- [to recording staff] this is, you can take this out.
[1:02:54] Romer: Every time we got something in the computer center, the mathematicians came down and said, “you're getting carpeting. Why don't we have carpeting?”
[1:03:06] Romer: And I [laughs] Oh! I had headaches! So many headaches. Anyway, they seem to be concerned and Duane Bailey was concerned that if I had a big office with windows, it wouldn't be the same kind of atmosphere that there had been in the basement of Converse.
[1:03:24] Servos: [Laughs] And he considered that a loss?
[1:03:26] Romer: Oh, yeah. Right. Duane had all sorts of wonderful ideas that were totally unworkable. Like what do we need a dec- Why do we need a service contract with Digital Equipment Corporation? Let the students fix it. And that was sort of like why didn't I do surgery when I wasn't at the computer center? Or why wasn't I a ballet dancer or a ballerina? Anyway, because in a sense, they were always these, these two parts. If you don't allow creativity, you're denying yourself a wonderful resource. If you let it take over, then you're denying people who need it in a very practical way, which is certainly their right. So, but you have to be sensible about it. Having students, I mean, the guy from Digital for which we paid heavily would come out with flowcharts. And we're all over the floor and spend days sometimes trying to fix things. And where would you get the parts from? I mean, the whole thing, but it reflected a sort of, like, “Hey, we're all in this together.”
[1:04:34] Anyway, so it got designed. I remember visiting my mother in New Jersey and getting a call from whatever this young man's name was, and someone had called me and they were concerned about the lighting. And then he called me and he said, I don't understand what the concern is about the lighting and I said, “Well, I've been advised that with the lighting that you've installed, it has a drapery effect. So that there's lighting, let's say, to this level and then there's a big scallop of darkness.” And I said, you know, “that won't do. That won't do.” So there were those things endlessly. But he contributed, aside from being sweet, and I assumed his next job he was-
[1:05:15] Servos: [Laughs] He was better educated.
[1:05:16] Romer: He was better educated, but the computer center, such as it was, and it really turned out not to be adequate. In computing- at some point, I was asked for things like a five year plan. Now, I'm not big on mission statements and five year plans and the only plan that I could think of was that as things became available- I mean that we think ahead.
[1:05:49] Servos: It's very hard to see more than a few years into the future in most fields, but I think especially so [crosstalk] in computer and-
[1:05:54] Romer: Oh in computing, yeah, and you can't, what you want to do is respond to what's exciting and creative out there and be willing to fund it.
[1:06:04] Servos: Well, I was struck in going through the 1985 students guide to PC products, there's a quotation in there. This is the Student Guide put out by the computer center. And the author writes, “your PC doesn't have to spend its whole life alone, with a modem you can call up literally hundreds of computers all over the country, and all over the world.” [Laughs] Now, this is ‘85.
[1:06:31] Romer: And this is ‘85. And it was 30- it was, it was so slow [laughing] that if you tried to send more than-
[1:06:36] Servos: It's clearly a great novelty. And, of course, the reference to hundreds of computers across the country is fascinating. And I was also struck by the fact that email addresses for the, for you and for the other members of the staff-
[1:06:50] Romer: It's very complicated
[1:06:51] Servos: -didn't appear in the guide until the ‘91, ‘92 edition.
[1:06:53] Romer: There was a way to send messages but it was via something called Bitnet. And you had to have- it was very, very complicated.
[1:06:58] Servos: But this illustrates how difficult it was to look more than a few years into the future.
[1:07:03] Romer: You just can't. And also, if you do, you're boxing yourself in in a way that's absolutely antithetical to what you're trying to accomplish.
[1:07:09] Servos: Right, right.
[1:07:10] Romer: We're only going to have this- what are you only going to have this equipment? That's crazy. You're only going to have so much of this. That’s nonsense.
[1:07:16] Servos: But you went through during your years at the center, you saw so many revolutions. So you saw a revolution going from a centralized processor to a distributed system of PCs across the campus, by the end of your time. You went through the revolution that occurred in networking.
[1:07:37] Romer: Yeah, I did.
[1:07:38] Servos: In the creation of the computer science department in 1990. The integration of computer science into so many of the fields that are taught here at the college. So you've seen all of those changes, and very few of them could have been predicted five or six or seven years in advance.
[1:07:55] Romer: Yeah, it just, I understand that it's a valuable tool for bookkeeping, but it's just, I mean, that was one of the things that culture. Mike Jewett, who was in charge of the administrative computer, I liked Mike, but we really couldn't. If we try to talk to each other, we might as well have been from different planets, not from just different countries. Of necessity, of necessity. Everything had to be planned. Everything had to be safeguarded. You couldn't say to students, “you've got to be responsible.”
[1:08:30] Servos: Right, right.
[1:08:31] Romer: If, if you gave them access, that's just ridiculous. You were putting everything at risk. And he was perfect for that culture. And I, I’m not, I never would have been. So that it was very, very clear that it was a special culture. And I don't know what it's like now, I suspect that it's underlying it because I know the people who were there.
[1:09:02] But the changes, you know, changes- I always, I went around saying the worst about this place is everything changes. And the best thing about this place is that everything changes. And also, I think that another thing about me that was a good fit- and I don't know that it's that important now, but it was then, was that, and with the students who worked for me, if we couldn't do something a way that would have been perhaps the best way because we had the money. That did not mean we were not gonna do it. We would just figure out another way to do it. And, you know, probably if that had gone on forever, it would have gotten tedious but it wasn't tedious for a long, long time. And in fact, it wasn't until after I left that the college really took on computing with full acknowledgement of its place.
[1:10:00] Servos: Yes. And rather slowly even then I can remember talking with Tom Gerety, toward the very end of his administration. And he said to me that- we were talking about IT and the IT budget. And, you know, he said that, I think he paraphrased Andrew Carnegie's “pioneering doesn't pay,” you know, Amherst College should be lagging a little bit behind the leaders and let them make the expensive mistakes. And that I think has always been part of the policy here with regard to [crosstalk]-
[1:10:31] Romer: that's what they said, that sounds really good. The point is we were not Carnegie Mellon and no way I mean, certain terms fortunately have died, I think. At least they've died for me, like “cutting edge.” Know that died. Probably “window of opportunity” is still around, I don’t care for that either. No, the best that we could do was to look at the needs of the campus as best we could evaluate and go a little bit farther. And that's what they weren't willing to do. If we could, I mean, that was another thing with Duane and his sort of romantic view. There were times certainly with the advent of wholesale, if I could use that word, desktop, publishing, printing, whatever, word processing, where the people who work for me who had been students and now were- killed themselves. Really, I mean, they exhausted themselves.
[1:11:35] They all were worn out beyond belief, because the hours they worked were just totally unreasonable. And I remember having a discussion that this is, I think that nobody ever has exactly what they need. And so people who care will always come forward and go a little bit beyond that. But if you're going to build any kind of organization by using up people, then something is wrong. And they were willing to do that. It's just not okay to make it work by, in a certain sense, abusing the people who work for you, making it their problem. You know, “why hasn't this happened?” “Why? Well, I'd have to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day.” Well, you know, what's your problem?
[1:12:25] Servos: And that really extended pretty much to the end of your term.
[1:12:29] Romer: Yes.
[1:12:31] So, and I know that, Jonathan Welch, who had been a student and then stayed on for two years, stayed on afterward and had a Green Dean and then got a regular position. I mean, he really was so exhausted that he had to leave. They all suffered from burnout, John Manley, Keith Handley because they were doing things that were born of their loyalty, their creativeness, a certain sense. I mean, one of the people in there talks about the early days as a time of just- It was exciting. It was just [crosstalk] Everything was very exciting.
[1:13:02] Servos: It’s remarkable to me how thinly staffed the center was, even at the very end [crosstalk] of your administration over there.
[1:13:07] Romer: Even at the very end.
[1:13:08] Servos: Yeah, you had a secretary-
[1:13:09] Romer: I had a secretary
[1:13:11] Servos: -you had some professional programmer.
[1:13:13] Romer: Well, I had Paul Chapin who dealt with faculty members for things like statistical package and some of the stuff and then I had Keith Handley, who had stayed on. And Craig Garnett, who stayed on then went to University of Virginia Law School. And people who stayed for years. Mike Adler. I don't know if you ever had him in class, really smart.
[1:13:42] Servos: No. I did have Jonathan Welch but that was,
[1:13:46] Romer: Yeah, that was much earlier [crosstalk]-
[1:13:47] Servos: But you really [crosstalk]-
[1:13:48] Romer: No I really, I really didn't [crosstalk]-
[1:13:49] Servos: Can count on four, five people [crosstalk]-
[1:13:50] Romer: No, really, no, really- at most.
[1:13:51] Servos: - at most, yeah.
[1:13:52] Romer: At most
[1:13:53] Servos: And that's to run a 24 hour center with the kind of usage you were starting to get by the 1980s.
[1:14:00] Romer: Yeah, I mean, it was just we had all of these. Now everybody was a user.
[1:14:05] Servos: Right.
[1:14:05] Romer: And, um.
[1:14:07] Servos: Were you getting, did you feel you had an ally in the faculty computer committee or an adversary?
[1:14:15] Romer: I always figured everyone was my ally. I mean it, I remember once, the committee at first was quite large, and then it got quite small. And I remember Tom Kearns saying to me, you know, we trust you. We don't have to have that many people. I was away for a weekend visiting my daughter. She was in Vermont, and I got a call. The math department had gotten a special grant for a different way to teach some aspect of mathematics. I don't know what it was. And what they wanted to do was take over one of the rooms in the computer center. And actually, whatever his name is, just slipped my mind, who was then head of buildings and grounds and left. He got on the phone too and he said, “you know, we can fix it up, we can do everything else.” And I said, “I'm not a part of the mathematics department.”
[1:15:21] You know, I have a room in the- it's not a very nice room. I've used it for teaching. See, there should have been a room for teaching and so forth on that floor. It just wasn't adequate. We had a perfectly dreadful very long, thin trailer type room in the basement- well Level C, I guess, at Frost. I said, “you can have that, it's not really mine, and I won't use it and you can use it.” And of course, they found it difficult. But yeah, it was really important to me that nobody feel that I was favoring- it was that, that's ridiculous. I didn't have to like you. Not to treat you badly. [Laughs]
[1:16:07] Romer: I mean-
[1:16:08] Servos: Did you feel you- were there some administrators, some Deans of the faculty who were especially sympathetic [crosstalk] you mentioned Dick-
[1:16:15] Romer: Catherine was very sympathetic of all pieces, not- but John Callahan was extremely sympathetic. I mean, the Economics Department was the only department that gave me any kind of a hard time and Catherine would just shake her head and say, “Ugh.”
[1:16:30] Servos: Because they were so hungry for computer time, or?
[1:16:32] Romer: Well, yeah, they kind of were a takeover group. But there was a time- it seems silly now because, well, silly isn't the right word. It seems pathetic. Considering the fact that then there was such limited resources that there was really competition between or among departments. So if you wanted to connect to the computer, your PC or whatever, or your terminal. First we had terminals.
[1:16:59] Servos: Right.
[1:17:00] Romer: If you wanted not to have to call up on a modem but be direct- we had, I think, five lines. And the committee, the faculty computer committee, would decide which departments would do that. I avoided- those decisions were inappropriate for me to make. That's why when they asked me if I would decide who would get computers, it was inappropriate. You can't work with people and also have their fate in your hands. So the Economics Department was not one of their choices. But the Economics Department had already, unbeknownst to anybody, had taken a wire.
[1:17:41] Romer: And hooked it up.
[1:17:46] Romer: And I had to go to them, they’re all big. I am not big, and they were all big. And I had to go to them and say, “I'm sorry. You have to unhook your wire.” And they decided that the bearer of ill tidings should be murdered. And things got bad [Laughs]. They got from bad to very bad, to baddest to worst-est.
[1:18:10] Romer: But no
[1:18:12] Servos: But you can understand why they might want to do that in an age of 300 baud modems, right?
[1:18:16] Romer: Oh, yeah! But you know, what, hey. And they had the advantage of being in the building. So, indeed, they could do it. But again, that, you know, I wasn't the right one to argue with. I made plenty of decisions that they might have argued with, but that wasn't clearly one of them, I mean, people would say to me, well, you know, when back in the days of football-, I mean, there was some, some things that I did not get to decide- rightfully. I didn’t wanna decide them. And which the five departments would be was clearly one of them and I thought, why don't you just kill off each other?
[1:18:59] Servos: Right, right. So the faculty computer committee made that recommendation to the Dean and-
[1:19:04] Romer: Yeah, made that re- yeah.
[1:19:05] Servos: And the dean made the final decision?
[1:19:07] Romer: No, I think they just made the decision, and yeah. Somebody. Dick was, of course, incredibly sympathetic. I mean, I went in there once and I, very unusual for me to be irate, at least on the surface. And I went in and I said [angry vocalization] and he said “hey, I’m on your side!” [Laughs]
[1:19:29] Servos: I was wondering, you know, thinking about some of the issues you must have confronted, security is always a big concern today in computer networks. And did you have any instances of hacking during your term? People who got into the computer without authorization and caused mischief, or?
[1:19:47] Romer: Not, not that- no, I didn’t. I did have a problem- some of my, the workers, John Manley was there, he wasn't one of them. Did something bad to the Smith computer.
[1:20:02] Servos: Oh, I don’t know that story [laughs].
[1:20:08] Romer: I don’t think they would have done it, wouldn’t have done it to ours. And I've been told and one of the people said you should ask so-and-so about the Smith hack, which I guess was that. They did something so it would crash-
[1:20:15] Servos: I’m surprised it was Smith and not Williams, if we're gonna have a target.
[1:20:19] Romer: Smith was very annoying.
[1:20:21] Servos: [Laughs]
[1:20:23] Romer: They were very annoying. They were- the woman who had any authority at all was totally- I mean, I think it was, it was like Mount Everest, it's there so we're going to do it. So they crashed the system and, and in a way that you couldn't just reboot and it stopped all work. And then I got the message from Lynn Goodhue who was then director of their computer center.
[1:20:51] Servos: With that- that Amherst fingerprints were on the, on the attack? [Laughs]
[1:20:54] Romer: I think she knew, I don’t know how she knew. Maybe they had a camera.
[1:21:00] And she was quite rightfully, very, very angry. And I found out who did it, you know, and said, “I don't really know how you could have done such a thing. It's unacceptable.” And she said, “Well, you have got to punish them by taking– not allowing them to use your computer.” And I said, I said “I cannot unilaterally make a decision to make it impossible for these students to do schoolwork that they do on the computer, I mean, I because of what they've done to you,” I mean, that's, that's not possible.
[1:21:39] Servos: Right.
[1:21:40] Romer: So what I decided was that they would have to do community service. That they belong to her for as long as she wanted them was the best I could come up with. So that was- no, to my knowledge, nobody.
[1:21:56] Um. I like to think it was part of the culture. That you didn't, um- one student supervisor complained to another that I didn't have enough rules because the only rule was be responsible. And I always felt that, let's say I gave them 20 rules. And I forgot to say, you can't throw rocks in the computer center. Did that mean you could throw rocks in the computer center? But then we had something that did change everything from my point of view. We had stuff stolen.
[1:22:31] Servos: Oh, I remember that. Yes.
[1:22:33] Romer: And it was a first.
[1:22:34] Servos: Right, yes.
[1:22:37] Romer: And it changed a lot. And I can't remember, I mean, we knew who had taken it.
[1:22:45] Servos: Yeah. This must have been somewhere in the late 80s.
[1:22:50] Romer: Yeah, or, no even, I think early 90s.
[1:22:54] Servos: Early 90s. Right.
[1:22:55] Romer: Early 90s. Until then, the computer center had been open 24 hours a day, and you could come and do your work. Now, what to do? Because whether that's right or not, in my mind, there's an invisible line. Nobody crosses it, everything's fine. The first time something crosses it, the culture can change.
[1:23:18] So there were discussions about “well, does it really matter? You know, probably be cheaper just to let them steal-”
[1:23:25] Romer: “-equipment?” Well, of course, that's out of the question. It's not a monetary thing. You can't have a computer center where you walk in and start looking. You know? Not the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where you can, you can fill the spaces but it's not, um- And so what happened was that then we had to have supervisors till three o'clock in the morning and then the computer center closed. And that was a whole big deal. I mean, you had to find students. You had to find students who- I mean, students could be the most reliable student in the world and still not show up. And so it introduced, I always thought, sadly, eventually those things get absorbed. People think of it as the norm. And never think about it at all. But for me, it was, it was sad because for all those years starting in the base-, although I, I don't remember that the basement in Converse was open 24 hours a day, probably not. But one of the people who came to visit me, the class of ‘77. He came this last Sunday. He told me that there was a key that was passed.
[1:24:45] Romer: And he had-
[1:24:48] Servos: Wonder if it opened the president's office.
[1:24:51] Romer: I don’t know, a key to the computer center, I guess, computer center. He said it’d been passed to him. Kent Johnson, I don't know if you knew him. He had gotten it from Douglas Weber who has, when Doug graduated, he passed it, passed it to Kent. And Kent said, “When I graduated, there was no one I could think of to give it to. So I gave it to- I didn't really like him,” said Kent, “but I gave him the key.” So the key got passed. But I'm sure they locked the building. And I'm sure that guards came around, because in Converse, because Converse was tricky. A lot of things were in danger, but it was sad. I was very sad.
[1:25:35] Servos: Yes, yes. Was there a case, I can't recall when the recording companies began prosecuting college students for downloading, um, copyrighted material, songs and such things. Was that before you left or after you left, the center?
[1:25:51] Romer: I don't know. I mean, I knew about that existing. The copyright deals that I had to do- deal with was faculty members. I mean, their books, what they were doing with them was copying books. I can't remember all the rules, but everybody had to go through some office in College Hall. Because, and we had to set down some sort of rules about that. We had to set down rules about computer software. You might steal it, but we weren't gonna, we were not gonna support it. So a lot of, a lot of things came up. And then student guides would come through on tours, and you would hear, this is the truth, “Listen, you're not supposed to steal software, but you can.”
[1:26:39] Romer: We would all look up- is there a god or isn’t there a God? If there is a God, why didn't someone strike him? We would listen to these stories.
[1:26:47] Servos: Oh gee. Yeah.
[1:26:49] Romer: So that was, but that was a moment--
[1:26:51] Servos: I've always wondered, do companies like Microsoft follow up? And, um, Adobe and some of the other makers of software?
[1:27:00] Romer: I don’t know. I don't know, I think they leave it. Um, either, either you decide and, and, you can get flack from faculty members about it, you either decide that you're going to run it honestly, or you're not. I mean, and to not run it honestly, is a mess that you don't want to get involved in. So it's not even whether you're an honest person or not. It's sort of like telling the truth because you have fewer lies to remember [laughs]. You just have to decide that you're going to do that. So, yes, you have to upgrade software. If you want us to support it.
[1:27:36] Well, the reason for upgrading it wasn't because of honesty, it was because it- software changed. And we really, they really couldn't expect with my staff-- well, even with a big staff-- that we would continue to support software as it was down here as it was here, number one. And number two, if you had software and it was clear that it was a pirated job, forget it. And after a while, despite the cost, you’d be surprised, people will do what they're supposed to do. And it's easier for them as well. So those issues- yeah, I guess issues just- everyday had issues.
[1:28:17] Servos: Now, another issue that appears probably during the last 10 years or so of your, of your term, is that of… of dealing with a large number of office managers and-- or, or was that part of your-
[1:28:33] Romer: Secretaries.
[1:28:34] Servos: Yeah, I'm thinking of department secretaries who were just getting computers for the first time, and--
[1:28:39] Romer: That's how Jonathan Welch turned from a young man of 23 into an old man of 110.
[1:28:44] Servos: Premature aging [laughs].
[1:28:46] Romer: Well, there were so many things that we had to do because of the demands of the time, which then I had to say we don't do anymore. Um, initially as departments got computers, you still had secretaries from another era. Eventually, as this culture changed, you got people who came to the college knowing about computers. But initially you got people who, not only were from a different era, the era of a typewriter, but also were, were phobic in terms of computers, and rightfully so. I mean it seemed like black magic. And as they tried to make the transition, they were also dealing with deadlines. And so there was always an element of franticness. If they called us. And so, we couldn't say, well, let's see we have some free time- this is Monday- we have some free time on Thursday. We'd have had massive suicides on campus.
[1:29:58] Servos: [Laughs]
[1:29:58] Romer: And so, um, people in the computer center had to go out. Margaret went out, Jonathan went out.
[1:30:08] Servos: And you just didn't have many people to throw at the problem.
[1:30:10] Romer: I didn't have many people to- and then I, um- it was funny, I was visiting a friend and her son who is, uh- and this, this goes way back- he, I had tried to think of, ‘who could we hire?’ I mean, if I saw a body that was breathing, I hired them part time.
[1:30:29] Romer: I had money, I hired part time people. And, and this woman's son was around the computer center. I knew he was pretty good with computers. And I said, “you want a part time job?” And he said, “Yeah, sure.” So I sent him out. And then when, when things settled down, and I didn't need him, he thought I fired him. And he said to me, “You know, I never was angry at you for firing me.” And I said, “I never fired you, you were a temp.” Should have made that clear. Um, one of my best workers, Michael Ri-, Michael Reilly, did you ever know Michael?
[1:31:01] Servos: No, I didn't, no.
[1:31:03] Romer: He had graduated. I think I hired him in, I don't know, maybe ‘92. And he had graduated before that, and he was hanging around the computer center. And I said, “you want a job?” And he said, “Yeah, sure.” So I hired him as a, uh, temporary worker. And then eventually, after a couple of years, he had a position. But if they breathed--
[1:31:31] Romer: I mean, I would think, ‘who do I know?’
[1:31:32] Servos: But there must have been a year or two when it was especially acute, when-- you know, yeah.
[1:31:36] Romer: The first couple of years, Jonathan Welch's years, you cannot imagine, these desperate, frantic phone calls. And then there was the business about, ‘my computer isn't working.’ Well, one of the reasons that IBM-- there were a couple of reasons why IBM got a toehold in Amherst rather than digital. One was because they were willing to give us- which was very un-IBM-like-- five computers to try. And digital wouldn't.
[1:32:05] Servos: These were the early PCs.
[1:32:07] Romer: The early PCs. They were willing to put five into Seeley Mudd. If we liked them, we could buy them. And if we didn't, and of course, once they were there, they were there. Digital would not consider anything like that. Number two was, after discussion, they allowed us to service them on the campus. Digital would not allow anything like that, they wanted us to take broken terminal, ter- broken PCs or whatever they were called to Holyoke. Well, that wasn't practical. We didn't have a whole storeroom where we could pull out– So, so IBM behaved very wisely. But, we could not say to a desperate secretary, “your printer isn't working, your computer- Oh, listen, why don't you call the network department and they'll help you out?” So we were running out for those things, too. And I suspect that Ryan Willey was probably doing some of that also, he's in the network department. I don't remember exactly. Um, and it was frantic and people were doing their best and [crosstalk] the best wasn’t good enough.
[1:33:04] Servos: This must’ve been about 1985? [Crosstalk] ‘86?
[1:33:07] Romer: Yeah, ‘cause we- oh yeah, it was terrible. People were being eaten up--
[1:33:13] Servos: And then, and then the faculty all got, uh, computers from the college a little bit later than that, [crosstalk] it must have been around 1990-
[1:33:22] Romer: A little bit later and not everybody. And the way I solved that was- so that was, that was really, that was really impossible. And um, but somehow it-
[1:33:35] Servos: But, but when it became policy to give every faculty member a computer, it also must have greatly increased the demands on-
[1:33:42] Romer: Okay, yeah. So what I did was, and, I don't remember the details, what I did was I made up a list of all the students who worked for me-- and there were a lot of supervisors-- who I thought were really good. And I said to the departments, “you are going to hire a student who's yours-”
[1:34:02] Servos: Oh I see.
[1:34:02] Romer: “- from this list, and if that student doesn't work out for you, for whatever reason, then you tell me and that student will be replaced. But you will have your own student. And faculty members will have the same student. So your department will have a student.”
[1:34:20] Servos: That's very clever of you. Decentralize some of that decision making and-
[1:34:25] Romer: Yeah, I mean that- Yeah, it worked, too. I also, we also had something called cooperative ventures where, I put-- as we got more personal computers, I put some in departments calling it a cooperative venture, hoping that their students might be able to use theirs so we would have less traffic right in the computer center. But there were, you know, until we really got a lot of PCs there were all these problems of ‘what can you use the VAX from?” And, people-- I mean, I was the most visible.I'm glad I wasn't six feet. Would’ve been bumped off!
[1:35:09] Romer: And nothing I tried worked. Nothing. I mean, saying, ‘well, you can word process on this from 8 to 10.’ I mean, nothing worked. And then another big deal was when students discovered things like Dungeons and Dragons.
[1:35:22] Servos: Yes, yes.
[1:35:24] Romer: And that ate up cycles like crazy. And people couldn't do their work because these kids had computers and they were using their computers as terminals to--to this program, and I had to say, ‘you can't-- that's- I can’t-’
[1:35:38] Servos: Yeah, for a few years there, there were stiff regulations [crosstalk] in place about gaming-
[1:35:41] Romer: There were regulations and, and sometimes, um, the roommate of someone would say to me, “thank God, because my roommate was such an addict. He never stopped doing that.” But of course, that-- I can't remember what the rule was. But then I said, ‘on Friday afternoons, anybody who is upset about this rule is invited to come to the computer center. And I will talk to you one on one, about why this was considered necessary.’
[1:36:14] Romer: And eventually-
[1:36:16] Servos: Did people show up?
[1:36:17] Romer: Yeah. Um. Well, you know, ideally, you shouldn't make a rule that you can't support. But eventually, with people having their own-- I remember, I had an argument, unfortunately, I don't remember her na-- oh, I sort of do remember her name, faculty member. Had this insane discussion. She said, “I'm having-” this was maybe the year before I left. And I s-- she said, “I'm having trouble with my computer.” And I said-- at this point, it was reasonable for somebody to bring it in. I mean, things were pretty much under control. We were now, you know, we'd been around a long time. And she said, “Well, you used to”-- oh, no, she said, “I want to bring in--” she said, “I want I bring in my computer” and I said, “Well, there's nobody here who can help you with that.” I said, “Why don't you call the network department?” And, uh, she said, “Well, you used to be able to bring it in.” And I said, “Yes, and I wish we still could, but no, we can't. I'm not-- [laughs]. This is not some just random kind of-- you know. And she was incensed. And, uh. I said to her, “I will send a student to you, and you will get better treatment from the student.” And so that's what I did, and, I thought, ‘idiot, you should call and apologize.’
[1:37:51] Servos: [laughs] You know, one of the interesting things that I found in looking over the history of the center was how many people joined as students, and then stayed on, and stayed on--
[1:38:05] Romer Oh yeah, and stayed on.
[1:38:05] Servos: and how, you know, I'm thinking people like John Manly. But also, you know, Margaret Ferro, would be another example. She wasn’t a student but she, she joined you, as [crosstalk] a part time secretary.
[1:38:18] Romer: Paul Chapin has been-- Paul Chapin has been there forever.
[1:38:21] Servos: Paul Chapin. And--
[1:38:23] Romer: My first VAX systems manager didn't want to leave.
[1:38:26] Servos: It's just remarkable that in a field, which is exploding, where the job opportunities are so great, uhh, around the country, that you should be able to retain people that, that effectively.
[1:38:39] Romer: Yeah, it wasn't-- and I saw, I saw other computer centers. I mean, I think we were, I can't say unique in the sense that I've told every computer center, but, the ones that I knew of, were constantly in flux. Department-- they-- the directors that were leaving, one minute, they were a director. The next minute gone. Con– Smith was an example. I mean, constant change, dissatisfaction. And I think that, that didn't happen. I mean, I don't know about what's happened since but, that didn't happen when I was there. First of all, most of my employees, and--and, Paul, fit in to that nicely-- understood what it meant to work at a college. And they understood that they were a service organization.
[1:39:31] And that yes, there were certain things that-- a professor would ask you to do a job. For example. And, you were just about finished when he would come down and tell you five different things that he would want done. And you did not have the option of saying, monster, why didn't you think [laughing] of that at the time?
[1:39:55] Romer: Or people would ask for things that sounded-- it's very interesting, computer-- some things that sound easy aren't. Some things that sound difficult are easy. Somebody asks you for something, it’s sort of like just find out what they want and see if we can work it out, possibly, and if we can't work it out, we'll deal with it. If they want something, and we can't possibly have it by then deadline, then figure out what-- talk to them about what's most important out of that array. And do that. Then there's always people-- any computer conference you went to, “Well, what do you do about the professor who comes to you the day before, and says, I have to have this tomorrow?” Or comes in the morning? “I have to have this this afternoon.”
[1:40:38] Um. Well, you try to give it to them. That's what you do. And everybody understood that. So maybe we didn't always come through because-- but we, we tried, and everybody had the same mindset as to what we could do.
[1:41:00] Servos: But it also strikes me that you're someone who, although you didn't have a whole lot of administrative background when you arrived, just proved very good at developing loyalty among your employees and a sense of commitment and dedication.
[1:41:17] Romer: I hope that's true. I mean, I'm still friendly with them. Greg used to come in and-- what’d he call me? Something about fearless leader or noble leader? No, I like them a lot. And one of the things that made that job hard for me was fighting with personnel. I mean, Dwayne might have thought it was cute for them to work like crazy. And not yet. I mean, one discussion. I remember Michael Adler stayed for--a few years ago, it was a postgraduate position. And he earned something like $20,000. And after a year, I went to the dean and the Dean was Rosbottom who was-- I liked a lot, but, he relied on Dwayne because Ron didn't know anything about computing. And I said, “I want to raise Adler to 22. Michael, to $22,000.” And Dwayne said, “that's a 10% raise!” And “No, that can't be done.” Well, see, scenes like that made me crazy. That made me crazy. And, and then I would go and Ruth Thornton who-- very nice person, she'd say, “Well, I know you're asking for a raise for your people. But I'm gonna do a survey of other computer centers, and I'm going to see what other people earn.” And I thought to myself, that's one of those things that sounds really right and is terribly wrong. Number one, you may go and find someone with the same title. But are they one of 30? Or are they one of 3?
[1:42:56] You know, what is the constituency?
[1:42:58] Servos: Right. Right.
[1:42:59] Romer: I mean, comparing is really a tricky business. And to decide that somebody at a huge computer center where they've got so many people-- support people that they’re tripping over each other, is something to compare us with just makes no sense at all. And so I was constantly fighting for their salaries and constantly fighting for raises and-- and, um, and I, you know, I was also constantly worried about them not having enough variety in their jobs. Because, that's death. Who-- who, who is-- has the slightest spark once they do the same thing, even if it's a good thing, over and over and over again.
[1:43:49] Servos: It sounds like you always had more than enough jobs for any one individual.
[1:43:52] Romer: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And I would say, “who wants to-- who wa--”, and so that's how Margaret got from being a part time secretary to being director of desktop. I would say,’well, who wants this job, who wants that job?” And of course, some jobs go away. So if you have a small staff, you constantly have to look at what's being done and decide what doesn't have to be done anymore. A simple thing like, the first couple of years, we sold discs.
[1:44:17] Servos: That's right.
[1:44:18] Romer: And after that, we didn't sell discs, and everyone said, “Ohh, we have a-- poor students.” And I said, “nonsense. They can go to Hastings, and in one visit, they can buy enough discs for the whole year. And we're out of it.” So you constantly had to see what you-- it just is-- we had to say to secretaries after a certain point, “you have to deal with a student, or we can come but we can't come now. Maybe we can come tomorrow. But you've got somebody who can help you and it can't be us right now.”
[1:44:48] And sometimes, uhh, you know, sometimes that can get edgy, but I think you have to think about the people you're working for and the people you're working with. I know once I was-- someone said, “Well, why isn't Paul Chapin doing such and such anymore? He was so good at it.” And that's exactly why he's not doing it anymore, he’s going nuts.
[1:45:16] Romer: He’s becoming agitated, becoming unfulfilled. So, that was a job. I mean, it was a job.
[1:45:25] Servos:Yeah. We-- were you feeling that, um, you were a little burned out by the end? By 1996? When you--?
[1:45:31] Romer: Well, I took two years to really decide that-- you know, you have dips and rises. One year was less interesting. I mean, I do-- think it was maybe ‘94, was less interesting. There was a hack. There was a problem, and a lot of time was sent into solving it. One student had hacked into somebody else's mail. And then published what he had written, which was personal.
[1:46:04] Servos: Wow.
[1:46:05] Romer: Now, today, there is no such thing as privacy. If you don't get into somebody’s, whatever, they have Facebooks, and-- where they tell you every aspect of their life.
[1:46:17] Servos: [laughs] More than you want to know.
[1:46:20] Romer: And-- but back then that was a really big issue and, and it took a lot of doing to trace it. And that person- I don't remember whether he was suspended or expelled. But he was supposed to go to medical school the next year, and he didn't go. He was particularly vicious and mean, the things that he-- personal letters between this guy and his girlfriend, I mean, they weren't racy or anything, but it was personal.
[1:46:45] And that was, that was unfortunate. But, but, in any case, how was I feeling? I was beginning to have a distinct- first of all, you asked-- let me go back a bit if I may. I knew that getting into desktop publishing was a good thing to do. Margaret always says- Margaret's job was to listen to what people talked about. And we would compare notes because if someone said, “Oh, it’d be interesting to do that,” then we took that seriously, it was clear that desktop publishing was on the horizon for whatever. And we had, at the end of the floor-- that, that first floor of Seeley Mudd, a place where there were some lockers and a coke machine. So I had lockers and the coke machine taken out. And I put a computer in there for desktop publishing.
[1:47:47] And so desktop publishing started in that little room. And, of course, there was no ventilation in that little room. But, it was the beginning. And people used it like crazy! And all kinds of wonderful things were done in that little room. But it couldn't go on forever. I mean, the heat in that room was just incredible. It was impossible. And that's when the fishbowl came into being. I can't remember exactly. The computers had changed and a lot of the room in this great big computer room, which had all of the equipment, was no longer needed. I just can't remember what- when. And so part of that got walled off and the desktop publishing stuff went in there. And I named it the fishbowl.
[1:48:38] Servos: I see. Uh-huh.
[1:48:42] Romer: And there was another room at the end of the hall. I know, umm. What’s his- how could I forget, he's my neighbor. His wife wanted to do some music stuff. If anybody wanted to do something. I mean, the music department had keyboards, you know, music programs, we set it, we set it up somewhere. So space, every space was used. And I also invited faculty members to use our conference room which was part of the offices, if they wanted to run a small class. But, so that became the fishbowl and, and in the fishbowl we had, I think one of the very first if not the first online computer publications. That was done at Amherst.
[1:49:25] So you know, things like that fuel the whole business of excitement, but, things were headed-- I mean, I don't know what it's like now, but things were headed for a more regimented society.
[1:49:41] Servos: So it's just becoming less fun. There was less improvisation,
[1:49:44] Romer: I was beginning to think “Mm, I've seen this problem before.” And “mm--” And, I was there during a time when, if, if I wanted a fish bowl, and I could convince the Dean to pay for it, and I could get Delmanzo, Don Delmanzo, to build it for me--
[1:50:04] Servos: Yes, oh yes. I remember. Yeah.
[1:50:06] Romer: We had a fishbowl. I, I like-- I liked having the responsibility, and I liked making the decisions. And, I really, I had the best of times. And I wasn't, it wasn't exactly boredom. But things were becoming, I mean, maybe they weren't there yet, but, maybe it was just sort of a fatigue, of-- the battles with personnel seemed the same. The fight over staff seemed the same. And, I remember when that all was just so exciting. I mean, I thought this is another thing to make work. And I think I had reached a point, not where I lost the desire to make things work, but I thought, “oh. I've been here, I've seen this.” And it-- it’s-- it no longer is exciting.
[1:51:08] I would think before in the summer about, you know, ‘wow, I mean, what’s-- this is going to be so exciting. We're going to do this in the fall, we're going to do that in the fall.’ And it-- I took two years because as I say things dip and rise, and then I knew that, that I really wanted to go. And I wrote a letter to Lisa who asked me to stay for six months. And, uh-- just as a transition person. And she said, “you know, you can do anything--” well, I didn't think that, however sweet she was about saying, “you know, if you don't want to work every d--” I mean, you-- that wasn't going to fly. And what's more, I knew what I wanted to do next. And I was eager to do it.
[1:51:57] Servos: Mmm-hmm. Which is?
[1:52:00] Romer: I wanted to start working in a museum. And I applied to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford to become an-- I’m sorry-- become a docent. Which I had never done before. And, so, for three and a half years I commuted to Hartford.
[1:52:18] Servos: I didn't know that. Okay.
[1:52:20] Romer: I then became a docent at Mount Holyoke College.
[1:52:24] Servos: In the art museum
[1:52:25] Servos: Yeah. Oh, I'm sorry, the art museum. And then, they have a wonderful collection, and I was willing to come and do adult tours for them, which they asked me to do. But I didn't want to stay there because I wanted something that was broader. So I then went to the Springfield Museum where there were four museums.
[1:52:46] Servos: So you've had quite a career after your retirement! [laughs] You're just like your husband Bob!
[1:52:52] Romer: Yeah, I know! Isn't that great? Yeah, so I-- now I'm at the Springfield Museums and I'm going to be giving a talk to a wide audie-- I mean, I've done it before-- audience at the museum in October. December! I'll send you a message and you can come and hear me.
[1:53:11] Servos: I'd love to. Yeah. [Crosstalk] Very exciting.
[1:53:12] Romer: Yeah, it's in what they call their ‘a la carte’ on Thursday. They have talks every Thursday, and I'll be giving a talk on Thursday on three centuries in the French landscape.
[1:53:20] Servos: Oh, wonderful.
[1:53:22] Romer: And I taught a course at the museum last semester, and I’ll be doing- last year, and I'll be doing it again next year. So I was eager to do that. That was from the BA, you know, the minor in English.
[1:53:36] Servos: Well, that’s very exciting. Umm. I don't know if there was anything that you'd like to add, that we haven't covered--
[1:53:46] Romer: You've asked me questions. I'm not sure I answered them all. Is there any--
[1:53:49] Servos: I think you've answered-- you even got back to the fishbowl [laughs].
[1:53:54] Romer: So much fun, having a fishbowl, and--. We had- the trustees came to the campus. And they were going to go around to each organization. And, the computer center was on the list of places they would visit. So what to do? So, we really put on a pretty nifty program. We took out the table and chairs in the center area and had folding chairs so they had to sit down. So they couldn't disappear. And we had a program. And we had about five students telling what they were going to do. And we had a big easel with evidence of their work. And then when we were finished with that-- and the students were wonderful, they were just wonderful. And then the one who was most responsible for desktop publishing, took them into the room at the end of the corridor.
[1:54:47] And you could hear laughter coming out of this because it was-- they, they had done-- the desktop publishing that they had come up with early on was fantastic. And that turned out- it was a great success- and that turned out to be very important. Because it was, we were on the brink of, I guess, ethernet, and Sharon Siegel, who was not about to spend any money that she didn't have to spend on computing. Um, the pressure was put on her. And she went to the Board of Trustees, and they had been so enthralled by what they had seen. You could just hear- I didn't go in the room. I stayed out, but you could just hear the laughter! And then there was a reception, at the president's house. And they were just high from what they had seen. So that really overruled any negative input from Sharon.
[1:55:36] Servos: Well, even my impression is, the trustees really listen to students when they come and student opinion can sometimes trump anyone else's.
[1:55:44] Romer: Well, yeah. And that was such a, you know, they, they were seeing the students who were excited and innovative and creative and doing all kinds of wonderful things, so--
[1:55:52] Servos: all the things they want Amherst to be.
[1:55:56] Romer: To be. So, I can't-- I understand things are going on swimmingly, and-- I don't know anything about it. 16 years is a long time. When I see Margaret, she’ll say “we're doing-- we have this and we're doing this and we're doing this,” and I think, ‘You're so sweet. I don’t know what you’re talking about!” [laughs]
[1:56:17] Servos: [laughs] But. So, is there anything else that you'd like to add, or--?
[1:56:22] Romer: I can’t think of anything.
[1:56:25] Servos: Right, well. You've been a pleasure to talk with,
[1:56:26] Romer: Oh, you’ve been a pleasure to talk with
[1:56:29] Servos: And, thank you very much, both for the interview and those 28 years that you gave to the College.
[1:56:38] Romer: Well, I, I, um. I-- I got into it. Not by mistake, but serendipitously. And, it was-- I never got over the feeling, frankly, until those last few years of, “Wow, how did I get here? Isn't this wonderful?”
[1:56:55] Servos: Well, thank you.
Betty Romer provides a history of computing at Amherst College from 1968 when she was hired as a part-time staff member with a degree in mathematics and work experience at Bell Labs, until 1996 when she left her position as director of academic computing to enroll in the docent program at the Wadsworth Atheneum. From the IBM1130 to personal computing, Ms. Romer sheds light on the budgetary challenges and the changing needs of students and faculty over the decades. She was the driving force behind the growth of computer services at Amherst.
John Servos is the Anson D. Moore Professor of History. He teaches survey courses on the history of Western medicine, the history of science, and the history of science in America. He is a regular participant in the First-Year Seminar and author of Physical Chemistry from Ostwald to Pauling.
Educational, not-for-profit use is permitted without the owner’s permission if the participants and publisher are acknowledged.
For publication and citation information, please see the catalog record for this recording.
For further information contact Archives & Special Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org.