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Ralph Selfridge


Ralph Gordon Selfridge passed away Sunday August 31, 2008, at the age of eighty-one. He lived a long and vigorous life. He is survived by his wife, Betty Rushton Selfridge, brother Oliver Selfridge, sister Jennifer Macleod, ten step children, seventeen grandchildren, and three great-grand children. He was born in London, England in 1927 and sailed from Liverpool to America the same day the first German bombs were dropped on London in 1939. He was the grandson of Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridges's department store of London.

His early education included English schools and firm discipline. He later attended Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts and earned his BS degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked his way through college in the cafeteria, where the cafeteria trays worked for sledding downhill in the winter. His Master's degree was awarded by Cornell University.

During the 1950s, he worked for the US Navy at the China Lake Naval Ordinance Test Station in California. At China Lake projects required overcoming "impossible" timetables and figuring out computer programs such as designing the Sidewinder missile. While at China Lake, the navy sponsored the completion of his Doctorate degree in mathematics at the University of Oregon. The close personal friendships formed at China Lake lasted a lifetime. From 1959 to 1961, he taught at Miami of Ohio University. His job there included the early programming and operation of an IBM 700 computer.

The longest portion of his career was spent at the University of Florida where he was a professor of mathematics and computer science from 1961-2002. As a pioneer in the new field of computer science; he was called by many "The grandfather of digital simulation". For a time, he was director of the U of F Computing Center (the predecessor of North-East Regional Data Center, NERDC). He encouraged members of his staff to overcome challenges, seek solutions, provided support and he trusted them. It was a time of great inventiveness and resourcefulness. His legendary class in numerical methods challenged (or terrified) many good students.

From the early sixties through the eighties he was a cave diver in the springs and sink- holes of north Florida. He learned to fly an airplane in 1948, and logged more than 5000 hours taking family, kids and grand-kids into airstrips all over the forty-eight states, Canada and Alaska. He flew the same airplane for nearly forty years. He bought a bicycle in 1955, and rode to work daily, rain or shine until he retired. He loved the mountains, and hiked every summer for about fifty years. He especially enjoyed the Wind River Range and Sierra Nevada mountains, seeking the incredible beauty of remote, inaccessible places.

He was a member of the Sierra Club, the Rolls-Royce owners' club, and the Sunbeam Apine owners' club. He attended many Sunbeam "Invasions", driving his small sports car long distances, and making repairs as needed along the way. He was a long-time member of the American Civil Liberties Union, serving for some years as their treasurer. He acted as the Chief Negotiator for the United Faculty of Florida and is a past-president of the Gainesville Pilots' Association. He was also active with the Gainesville Little Theater and other local theatrical groups. He played an English butler more than once, and stole a few scenes "high pouring" tea or unexpectedly substituting a real alcoholic beverage into an actor's cup. He was fond of saying that when he was acting, he was just playing himself.

His life exemplified, intellectual rigor, kindness, and love of humanity. He was a gentleman and a scholar. Contributions in his honor may be made to the Sierra Club or the American Civil Liberties Union.

A Memorial Service will be held on Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 1:30pm at Holy Trinity Church, 100 NE 1st ST., Gainesville, FL.
Published in Gainesville Sun from Sept. 3 to Sept. 4, 2008
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