Professor Leslie "Les" Gasser passed away at his home on Tuesday, October 16, surrounded by family and close friends. He is survived by his wife of 21 years, Terry von Thaden; his daughter Lisette and son Liam; and extended family and many beloved friends and colleagues.
Born on December 31, 1949, Gasser's childhood was characterized by an enthusiasm for life and zeal for discovery. These traits served him well in college and graduate school. He graduated magna cum laude with a BA in English literature from the University of Massachusetts in 1976. He earned his MS and PhD degrees in computer science from the University of California, Irvine, in 1978 and 1984, respectively. During these years and throughout his lifetime, he was a talented musician who played trumpet and guitar. He also was an avid ham radio operator.
After completing his education, Gasser taught and conducted research at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He joined the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, now the School of Information Sciences, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an associate professor in 1998. He was promoted to full professor in 2006. His research focused on social informatics, information systems, conceptual foundations of information, extreme-scale distributed simulation, and the origins and use of information in biological systems.
"At a critical time in the School's development, Les significantly contributed to broadening both teaching and research in social informatics," said Leigh Estabrook, iSchool dean emerita, who recruited Gasser. "Les was unique in the way he thought about our field and his ability to cross disciplinary boundaries."
At Illinois, Gasser held a joint appointment in the Department of Computer Science and faculty affiliate appointments in the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the Beckman Institute, and the Computational Science and Engineering Program. He also was a faculty affiliate at the Institute for Software Research in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California-Irvine.
Gasser's innovative work secured grants from funders including the National Science Foundation, National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, and Intel. In 2009, he received the IFAAMAS Influential Publication Prize for co-editing a series of books about distributed artificial intelligence. He also was selected to serve as a prestigious NCSA Faculty Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year. Gasser accepted numerous national and international invitations to serve as an invited keynote speaker and invited professor, sharing his knowledge and expertise.
"Les Gasser's impact on our School's identity and culture has been enormous and permanent. Academically, he was noted for startlingly ambitious research agendas and creative thinking and surprise in his classroom—and for always treating all students, at every level, as colleagues in a great intellectual adventure. In his leadership roles here, both formal and informal, he was deeply innovative and yet at the same time measured and balanced, often changing the conversation in interesting ways, and always reaching out to include new voices. He was a very good friend to me and to so many of us. The School he helped create will carry on the marks of his insights and commitments into the future," said Dean Allen Renear.
A celebration of Gasser's life is planned for October 29 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Riggs Beer Company, Urbana. Donations in his memory may be made to the Children’s Tumor Foundation, dedicated to neurofibromatosis research.