Dick Seebach: Returning home

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July 31, 2018

Dick Seebach (B.S. ’69, M.S. ’72) has returned home.  After spending a successful career in New Jersey working for Bell Laboratories, marrying the love of his life, Dot, and raising a family, Dick has moved back to his ancestral home in the Midwest to be closer to family in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Dick’s Minnesota roots go back to his great grandfather who immigrated from Germany in the 1850s and settled in southeastern Minnesota.  However, it was Dick’s father, Leslie Seebach, who began the Seebach legacy at the University of Minnesota.  Shortly after Leslie stepped onto campus, his brother, Richard, and sister, Lydia, followed him to the U. Leslie and Lydia graduated from the U’s medical school. Richard majored in education.

“And then there was me,” Dick said.  “I came to the U because it was a state school and it was where my father had gone.”

Dick’s passion for the sciences started in the seventh grade, while he was living in Indiana where his father was stationed as a Navy doctor.  Officer’s kids were bussed to Indiana University for school and that’s when Dick asked himself the question, “What’s the most basic science?”

Physics, was the answer he landed on, so from that time on he began to seriously pursue the science through his undergraduate pursuits here at the U.

Finding community in band and science

As a son of Red Wing, Dick’s first impression was that the U was very big.  The size of the campus and breadth of opportunity led Dick to find ways to make it feel a little smaller, so he joined the marching band. “I played clarinet the first couple years, then I played alto sax. The band was only about 180 members, all men.”

The band gave Dick a community and an opportunity to live with his band mates in the Centennial dorm. “I was a dorm person.  Dorm life was good and I met a lot of kids.  There were dances and parties.  I also paid my way through school and one way of doing it was working the dorm cafeteria.”

Where one starts is not always where one ends up, and this was true of Dick’s academic career.  After majoring in physics and starting a graduate degree in physics, he realized it was not for him, so he talked to the CS department head at the time, Professor J. Ben Rosen, and made a slight pivot.

“Computer science was very interesting,” Dick said.  “First off, programming was fun.  It was very good for me. Also, the theory courses were intellectually challenging.”

Back when Dick started with the CS department, however, the discipline was quite different than it is today. The computers were the size of a lab space, the premiere programming language was FORTRAN, and inputting information into the Control Data machines was via punch cards.

“Back in the 60s, you didn’t have PCs, so we would either solve partial differential equations by hand or punch up cards and submit decks to the computer lab.  We had no computer graphics.  It was the engineering dark ages,” Dick reflected.

The department was also much smaller.  Where Dick attended classes with 20 students or fewer, nowadays an average freshman intro course in computer science for majors has 430 students in three different lecture sections.

Dick received his master’s degree in computer science in 1972.  Shortly after, with the help of the placement office, he interviewed and landed at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, which formerly employed another University of Minnesota alumnus and Nobel Prizewinner, Dr. Walter Brattain. Brattain was a co-inventor of the transistor while at the Labs.

Working in data before ‘Big Data’

When Dick started with Bell Laboratories, the computing world itself was evolving.  As businesses relied upon computers more and more, database systems were introduced to organize and analyze the growing amounts of data.

It’s a similar issue today.  Businesses have vast troves of data, but they don’t know how to access it, store it, or in many ways use it.  Dick was at the forefront of today’s current Big Data revolution.

“Even back then, Bell operating companies realized that there was so much data they needed to manipulate, they could no longer keep going with manual record keeping systems, so they brought Bell Labs in to help computerize their operations,” Dick said.

Where Big Data projects now are able to sift through many terabytes of data at unprecedented speeds, Dick’s first project with Bell Labs was much more modest.  “My first job was a project to automate the production of telephone directories,” Dick said.  “Before computers, telephone directories were created using lead type—the same way books and newspapers were.”

Up until Dick and his team undertook this massive project, phone directories were created by accessing warehouses full of lead-typed plates and stamping ink onto sheets of paper.  Workers had to change the lead type for each page by hand—updating personal information, addresses, and phone numbers.  Dick was bringing a form of printing invented at the dawn of the millennium to the modern age of computational storage.

“We’d take customer data, put it in our databases, and then generate a magnetic tape that could be fed into a photocomposer,” Dick said.  “So instead of all the information being in a warehouse, it was sitting on an IBM 360 machine.”

Giving back

As computers advanced, so did Dick’s career, going into fields as varied as networking and security. While at Bell Labs, Dick saw the evolution of the UNIX operating system from an experimental program to one that controls the operation of many computer platforms.

Though the technological landscape has seen dramatic changes since Dick started his journey, one thing has remained the same: his desire to get back in touch with his Minnesotan roots.

“After moving back to the area (River Falls, WI), an important thing was building a stronger relationship with the College of Science and Engineering as well as the marching band and the Alumni Association,” said Dick.  “We’ve been to many UMAA events and have attended programs such as the Tate Hall dedication and the marching band’s annual picnic.  Being physically close allows us to have a better relationship with the University.”

Part of reconnecting with Minnesota for the Seebachs has been finding a way to give back to the University, so in addition to giving annually to the College of Science and Engineering and the marching band, the Seebachs established the Seebach Family Graduate Fellowship fund for the Department of Computer Science and Engineering to help a student offset the rising cost of tuition, something Dick remembered he was able to cover on his own by working on campus and working over the summer. This new $50,000 endowed fellowship, which honors Dick’s father, uncle and aunt as Minnesota graduates, will provide an annual fellowship to a deserving graduate student.

“It’s important for us to come back to the U and walk around campus and know our contributions are staying in the area and helping students who need help,” Dick said.  “It’s part of our family legacy.”

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