On a Wednesday in May in a courtroom in San Francisco, Jim Gray, a legendary figure in the technology industry, was declared legally dead.
Few in Madison likely noticed, but maybe they should have, for part of Gray’s considerable legacy exists here.
It was in 2004 that Gray, a Microsoft scientist and world-renowned database expert — recipient of the Turing Award, his field’s highest honor — first suggested to his friend David DeWitt, a celebrated UW-Madison computer science professor, that Microsoft and UW should collaborate on a Microsoft lab in Madison that DeWitt would run.
But it didn’t happen. DeWitt, who by then had nearly three decades in at UW-Madison, wasn’t quite ready to leave academia.
“Jim was pretty angry with me,” DeWitt recalled last week.
Then, some three years later, the unthinkable happened.
On Jan. 28, 2007, Gray,
who was 63, piloted his 40-foot sailboat, named Tenacious, out across San Francisco Bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge with the intention of scattering his mother’s ashes near the Farallon Islands, which are 27 miles off shore.
Two days earlier, Gray had spoken by phone with DeWitt in Madison.
The two friends had just finished conducting a database conference with a third colleague. They talked about how the conference had gone and discussed some budgetary issues for a future gathering.
At one point Gray mentioned his weekend sailing plans.
“I was horrified to hear he was going sailing alone to the Farallons,” DeWitt said. “That’s some really big water.”
Gray was an accomplished sailor, but something went wrong that Sunday.
Gray spoke by cellphone with his wife early in the day, and later with his daughter from the boat, where he reported nice weather and some dolphin sightings.
But by 8:30 that night, when his wife, Donna Carnes, could not reach Gray on the cellphone, she alerted authorities.
Despite a massive search effort, conducted both by authorities and Gray’s friends and colleagues in high technology, no trace of him or the Tenacious was ever found.
After initially resisting
it, Carnes — who DeWitt said was raised in Middleton and currently has a home in the Madison area, along with one in San Francisco — agreed to a tribute event in May 2008 at the University of California-Berkeley.
DeWitt spoke at the event, which drew about 600 of Gray’s friends and admirers.
In a New York Times blog post after the tribute, John Markoff wrote, “In addition to being brilliant, Dr. Gray was an iconoclast. Speaker after speaker fondly told stories that reflected his disdain for bureaucracy and his independence.”
Markoff noted that Gray “rarely wore anything but jeans and was once thrown out of the IBM Scientific Center in Los Angeles for failing to meet the company’s dress code.”
For DeWitt, the ceremony revealed just how many people Gray had touched. “Jim mentored a lot of people. I thought I had a special relationship with him. It turned out we all thought we were special to him.”
DeWitt came to Madison after getting his doctorate at the University of Michigan, and his work here with databases — encouraged by computer science legend Larry Landweber — soon put him in touch with Gray, who started at IBM and eventually wound up with Microsoft.
Though Gray’s hope for a lab in Madison did not reach fruition in 2004, in April 2008 — 15 months after his disappearance — UW and Microsoft announced they would partner in the Microsoft Jim Gray Systems Lab on West Main Street.
DeWitt retired from UW to become its director.
According to DeWitt, the partnership and sharing of intellectual property is so unique — with UW students working aside Microsoft employees — it took strong personal stances by Bill Gates and then-UW chancellor
John Wiley, to make it happen.
“Our mission is to explore new frontiers in the management and processing of very large data sets,” DeWitt said, adding they are off to a great start.
In May, when the court declared Gray legally dead, the New York Times reported that Carnes sent a brief note to friends “with the hope that Jim may rest in peace.”
The Madison lab remains the only Microsoft facility named for an individual.
DeWitt said his friend might not approve of having the lab named for him but felt Gray would be thrilled to see the students there flourish.
“I feel very proud of what we’ve accomplished in Jim’s name,” he said.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.