Unlikely as it may sound, without a bit of serendipity—or air conditioning—emeritus professor Charles Fischer may not have chanced upon the path that led to a decades-long career as a respected computer scientist.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Fischer attended high school in the 1960s. At that time, his school, Hutchinson Central Technical, was only the second in the country to have a computer. What’s more, it was in the building’s only air-conditioned room. Curiosity and a wish to keep cool drove Fischer to the computer lab.
A dynamic young teacher who had recently left IBM was in charge of the lab. “He convinced me that the age of computing was upon us, and maybe I could play a part in it,” says Fischer.
Fischer earned a PhD in computer science from Cornell University in 1974, after undergraduate studies in physics at the University of Buffalo.
Fresh out of Cornell, he joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison, drawn by the vibrancy of a Big Ten school, a scenic campus and football Saturdays at Camp Randall. Fischer’s PhD advisor, John Williams, happened to be a Wisconsin grad and knew some of the early UW faculty members in CS, such as Larry Landweber, Tad Pinkerton and Larry Travis.
Now, decades of students have learned about programming languages and compilers under Fischer's guidance. A textbook he coauthored with Ron K. Cytron and Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr., Crafting a Compiler, has been printed in three different versions.
Fischer also served a term as department chair in the mid-eighties, as the stage 3 building was going up at 1210 W. Dayton St.
Though Fischer became a professor emeritus in 2009, he still teaches and is on campus almost daily. Although he didn’t teach for the first three years of his retirement, he returned to help the department keep up with growing demand for courses.
These days, some of his teaching is centered on the department’s Professional Master’s Program and Capstone Certificate Program. He especially enjoys working with students who are shifting careers, coming to computer science from another discipline. “The students are very mature, very motivated and serious,” he says.
Given his forty-year-plus history with the department, Fischer is able to take the long view of computing at Madison.
He arrived just as the department was moving in a more applied direction, spurred largely by fellow emeritus professor Larry Landweber, who joined the department in 1967. Areas like databases and computer architecture were growing. Says Fischer, “It was a brave move on the part of the senior faculty. The downplayed their own importance in order to change direction, and [the shift] made the program more attractive to students and employers.”
But the original strengths of the department persisted. Fischer recalls a core group of ten to fifteen faculty when he arrived, many with joint appointments elsewhere on campus. “There were first-rate people like Barkley Rosser, one of the real powers in mathematics, and Steve Kleene, who later became dean of the College of Letters & Science, who was very well known as a theoretical mathematician. He has his name on several theorems, as does Rosser. They made very fundamental early contributions [to the field],” recalls Fischer.
Fischer enjoys connecting with former students, such as the 2014 reception for Bay Area alumni, where he gave a talk. “It was very gratifying to see how many students from way, way back came by to tell me their stories, including people I hadn’t seen in about forty years,” he says. “I was very pleased and impressed by how much they had accomplished and how well they’ve done.”
Outside of his professional life, Fischer is a devoted opera fan, often attending the HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera with fellow CS professor Mark D. Hill. His favorites are Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Valkyrie from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
“I’ll go see those no matter how often I’ve seen them before,” he says. “Operas never get stale; they refresh themselves in a way that’s really quite unexpected.”
You could say the computer science is always refreshing itself, too, with the field’s rapid developments—developments that researchers and educators like Fischer have helped shape.
Professor Fischer welcomes notes from former students; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Photo by Perry Kivolowitz]