In Memoriam: Professor Emeritus Larry Travis

Submitted by Jennifer Smith on Mon, 09/25/2017 – 10:51am

Larry Travis, 1929-2017 (written by Sven Travis, son of Larry Travis)

We celebrate the life of Larry Travis, who passed away on August 14 of complications from recent surgery. Travis was an influential figure in computing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and across the statewide university system. He is survived by Esther, his wife of 68 years, his two schipperke dogs (Amy and Pax), four children (Erik, a musician in Minneapolis; Sven, a design professor in New York; Kort, a plasma physicist in Perth, Australia; and Bryn, a doctor in Portland, Maine) and seven grandchildren. [He is pictured here with one of his grandchildren in 1999.]

Larry Travis grew up on a farm near Holyoke, Colorado (he and Esther were high school sweethearts). He was educated at the University of Chicago, UC Boulder, and UCLA. After stints as a teacher in the Marine Corps Signal Corps (Korean War) and a journalist (he served as a small-town newspaper editor), he pursued his PhD in philosophy from UCLA. This led him to work at Sperry-Rand and SDC (Systems Development Corporation), and eventually a professorship at UW-Madison in the early 60s, prior to the creation of the Computer Sciences Department (his first office was in a wood-frame house on Lathrop Street). During the ’60s and ’70s, he served as director of the Madison Academic Computing Center and was chair of Computer Sciences from 1978-80. He was widely involved in the planning, implementation and expansion of computing across the university, from both academic and system perspectives. He left Madison briefly in the late ’70s for a provost position at the University of Delaware, but returned soon after and remained until his retirement.

As a researcher, Travis focused on artificial intelligence. He worked and taught extensively around expert systems–particularly Prolog–and he became fascinated by the rapidly expanding role of computers across society. As such, he suffered through the euphoria and repeated failures of early AI. Throughout his career he engaged in several large-scale projects to implement expert systems, most notably one to make GeoSat imagery more accessible to the public. He remained actively interested in AI until his death. One of his great joys in retirement was the rapidly advancing ability of computers to effectively handle and execute sophisticated AI, and the ways in which this was taking hold across society. He spent his later years immersed in Clojure, which he ran constantly via two souped-up iMacs in his home office. It would be remiss not to note Larry’s lifelong fascination with extraterrestrial life and paranormal activity. Whether via early work with eastern religion, yoga and spirituality, or extensive reading on various related topics, it was an unavoidable presence throughout his life, and one that for those who knew him cycled right back into his computational research.

In retirement, Larry and Esther built a home on 80 acres near Dodgeville and actively commuted between there and Madison. They turned the acreage into a veritable nature preserve, designing, implementing and maintaining an extensive path system across the land. Larry constructed two elaborate bridges to allow for passage across streams and lowland areas. All of this allowed him to embrace his lifelong love of tractors, as he finally–50 years after leaving his childhood farm in Colorado–had reason and opportunity to engage with tractors once again.

Larry Travis will be remembered for his quiet wisdom, his sense of humor, his kindness, his love of nature, and throughout a lifetime spent with computers, his focus on the human condition. He will be missed deeply, but his was a life well lived. In lieu of a formal memorial his children will be creating a blog in his honor. Feel free to send your memories of Larry to larry.travis.thoughts [at]