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Updated 10:00 AM November 13, 2006




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Robert Bartels

Robert Bartels, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University and retired director of the U-M Computing Center, died Sept. 9 in his sleep at the Swan Creek Retirement Village in Toledo, Ohio.

Born the second of three sons to German immigrant parents in New York, he grew up in Brooklyn and rural New York. His mother's desire that her children should be educated led to the three brothers each earning a bachelor's degree; his was in engineering.
Courtesy Department of Mathematics

Bartels' training enabled him to find a position as a junior technician with Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, a prize of some consequence during the Depression. When Bell instituted a program of educational support that offered people of his rank the opportunity to return to college and earn a postgraduate degree, he entered the graduate program in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Colleagues say that unfortunately for Bell, Bartels dropped into a mathematics lecture one day on the advice of a friend, became interested in what he saw and changed his major. In 1938 he earned a doctoral degree in mathematics, married Virginia Terwilliger and accepted his first academic position at U-M.

From that year until the summer of 2006, with a timeout in World War II to work on research with the Navy in Washington, D.C., he was a resident of Ann Arbor and a professor of mathematics with the University.

In late 1958, when U-M planned to move its small computer operation off campus and discontinue general computer access to students and faculty, Bartels embarked on a successful campaign to reverse this decision and to establish a viable central computing facility to support teaching, research and administration. He became the Computing Center's first director in 1959 and remained at its helm until retiring in 1978.

During that time he actively promoted the University's development of computer science education and research. Colleagues say important advances in programming languages and operating systems were nurtured in the computing environment he established.

Bartels also was responsible for organizing a series of short courses and lectures during a 15-year period with the U-M Engineering Summer Conferences in the late 1950s and early '60s that encouraged some important early developments in the theory and software for computer mathematics.

Upon retirement, he and his wife took up an interest in American art glass. Friends say during the course of the next 20 years they established an impressive private glass collection, guided by the considerable historical knowledge of American art glass they acquired.

Bartels is survived by his wife and sons Richard (Renate) Bartels and Albert (Jacqueline) Bartels; grandchildren, Robert, Adrienne and Ainslee; great-grandchildren, Ziggy, Ansel and Isabel; and by numerous nieces and nephews.

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