Computer connector

John “Jack” Storlie started UW-La Crosse’s Computer Science Department. His children, who are UWL alumni, and wife returned to celebrate the department’s 50th Anniversary in October. From left, Cindy Patza, Jean Storlie, Lois Storlie (wife), John (Jr.) Storlie, Chris Storlie and Barb Cooper.

UWL pioneer encouraged university, community to embrace an emerging technology that transformed the world

In the mid 1960s John “Jack” Storlie was a UWL assistant professor and doctoral student studying chemistry at UW-Madison when he learned about something amazing. It changed his life direction, influencing him to turn in his chemistry books and quit the program.

That something was the potential application of computers.

John “Jack” Storlie and wife, Lois Storlie, founded the John and Lois Storlie Scholarship Fund 20 years ago in 1998. The Jack Storlie’s family honored him with an additional donation to the scholarship fund of $1,500 during the 50th Anniversary celebration. Image courtesy of Murphy Library Special Collections.

Today — more than 50 years later — UWL knows Storlie as the individual who led the university toward embracing this new technology — purchasing the university’s first computer and starting UWL’s Computer Science Department, which is the second oldest in the UW System. A UWL scholarship is named in honor of Storlie, who died in 2013, and his wife, Lois.

Storlie was celebrated, along with alumni of the department, as part of the 50th anniversary of UWL’s Computer Science Department on Oct. 5. His five children — all UW-La Crosse alumni — returned to help celebrate.

But Storlie’s mark in computer education was much wider than UWL.

Jean Storlie, one of his five children, recalls walking into his UWL office as a child where he had posted a map of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. Strings diverged from UWL’s Wing Technology Center to points all over the region, indicating where Storlie had traveled to set up the LACE — La Crosse Area Computers in Education — network. This outreach program placed computer terminals connected by phone lines in K-12 classrooms, allowing schools to begin to teach kids about this new technology. He also taught courses to local businesses and organizations on computing.

“He was interested in going outside the walls of this institution and creating a corporate- academic relationship,” recalls Jean. “That was a huge passion for him. He was an evangelist. He felt this was going to transform the world.”

The broad applications for computers wasn’t a common thought in the 1960s when they were widely considered to have limited practical application and came with a costly price tag of about $1 million. But Storlie was persistent and persuasive in bringing them to UWL.

Storlie eventually became chair of UWL’s Computer Science Department and director of the Computer Center, retiring in 1987 as director of the Computer Center.

His five children vividly recall him coming home from work in the 1970s “giddy with excitement” to show off technology. He toted a heavy suitcase on wheels containing a dial-up terminal. It looked like a massive typewriter, along with a separate bag for the modem. With this equipment, he could communicate over the telephone line with the computer in Wing Technology Center.

His youngest children, John Jr. and Chris Storlie, played games on the dial-up. They waited patiently for the computer to respond several minutes after each input.

“He was interested in going outside the walls of this institution and creating a corporate- academic relationship,” recalls Jean. “That was a huge passion for him. He was an evangelist. He felt this was going to transform the world.”

Jack “tricked” his daughter Chris into doing games that were really math problems. But those early experiences with technology and math paid off later on as she excelled in computer science in high school.

Barb Cooper, another daughter, recalls fixing computers with her father together growing up. Today she is the go-to person for trouble shooting problems at her work place.

Likewise, his daughter, Cindy Patza, applied her UWL computer programming coursework to a job she held as an undergraduate working in UWL’s Grandview Building, which housed UWL’s health center and staff offices for Business and Education at the time. Working under UWL’s Business Services Controller, she wrote her own payroll program to prepare the payroll for UWL’s custodial and administrative staff much more quickly.

Jean agrees that, because of her father, she too has always leaned into technology.

“As a father of four daughters, he didn’t want us to believe we had limitations,” says Barb. “He wanted us to know we could do non-traditional things. He was ahead of his time in that way.”

And because of his profession, Storlie could leave that impression on many more people beyond his family.

“I still meet people who say your dad was my favorite teacher,” says Cindy.

Because of his love for teaching, Storlie turned down multiple job offers in the computer industry to continue to work in the academic setting. His wife, Lois, recalls how hard it was for her husband to decide to take on more administrative roles in the Computer Science Department. “He missed teaching always,” she says.

But Storlie would be happy to know that because he chose to lead that charge — UWL has a longstanding Computer Science Department today. It currently has 312 Computer Science majors, 46 minors, and 28 graduate students.

And students are benefiting from his legacy in more ways than one. More than $23,000 in scholarships have been awarded to students through the John and Lois Storlie Scholarship Endowment Fund in Computer Science since 1999.