Colleagues, family and former students of the much-loved and visionary Professor Gary Marsden gathered to name a meeting room in his honour at the Centre in Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Computer Science.
The Gary Marsden Boardroom was unveiled at an event held on Thursday, 12 March.
Marsden passed away suddenly from a heart attack in December 2013 at age 43, but it was clear at the naming ceremony that he has left a lasting impression on people in the department, the faculty, UCT and the international research community.
Speakers, including Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, told of the ripple effect of Marsden’s passion for teaching and research, and spoke movingly about the influence he had had on them, both personally and professionally, during his 13 years at UCT.
Marsden was the founding director of the Centre in ICT4D, an accredited research group within the university, with a focus on computing solutions to human and socio-economic development problems.
In a proposal to name the boardroom after Marsden, head of the computer science department, Associate Professor Hussein Suleman, said Marsden’s research was recognised internationally, evidenced by numerous publications and concomitant citations, and a multitude of leading international researchers who visited UCT as a consequence. Marsden’s book Mobile Interaction Design is considered a seminal work on the design of mobile applications, especially for and in poor communities.
The naming of the Gary Marsden Boardroom was symbolic of the beloved professor, as it was a space that he had originally designed and developed.
Energy and passion
In a telling vignette, Phakeng said she was offered a lift to the function by a shop steward “who regularly challenges us as management”. It turned out that coincidentally he had been taught by Marsden when he was an undergraduate student. He told the vice-chancellor that Marsden had been full of energy and passion for teaching.
“As he was getting out of the car, he said in Setswana, ‘And here’s the thing, Prof, he was colour-blind. It didn’t matter that we were black students and many of us didn’t have experience. He treated us with respect, with dignity, and as if we could achieve great things.’ ”
“He is the guy you want to have on your team, to spar with when you have an idea.”
Phakeng said it was heartwarming to hear this story about Marsden, who she said embodied the three elements of purpose, passion and people, and was the type of employee that UCT wanted to attract and keep.
“He is the guy you want to have on your team, to spar with when you have an idea; the guy you want to teach you and supervise you in the way he carries himself.
“We are not just marking that Gary was here and made an impact. We are also marking the values and attributes of an employee who we would like to see in this university, irrespective of race, gender and sexual orientation.”
The ultimate academic
Marsden’s former colleagues paid warm tribute to him.
“Gary was the ultimate academic. He had a profound influence on the department. Gary was always the person I knew I could bounce ideas off. His whole academic life was about sharing his knowledge with other people,” said Emeritus Professor Ken MacGregor, who was Marsden’s head of department.
Marsden earned a Distinguished Teacher Award and was remembered by his students for his exceptional and inspiring lectures often punctuated with laughter.
“Gary’s humour opened the way to point out the inequalities, incongruities and urgent need for change.”
“I remember the laughter of the enthralled audience of undergraduates or the bemused donors from the tech industry as they laughed as they gave him lots of money,” said Associate Professor Marion Walton, convener of Digital Media and Informatics at UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies.
“Gary’s humour opened the way to point out the inequalities, incongruities and urgent need for change in a world far too full of technological hype.”
Walton paid tribute to Marsden’s humanity and his inter-connectedness to “all of us as colleagues”. She said he had regularly begun his Monday meetings by asking the question, ‘Why?’ and did not allow himself to be paralysed by academic politics or the excesses of the tech industry.
Visionary, with a sense of fun
Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at UCT, Edwin Blake, said Marsden had been an innovator and a visionary.
“He could envisage desirable outcomes and formulate ways to reach them. He was fun, exciting and extremely hard-working. He was an outstanding charismatic academic.”
He was also highly innovative and sought out and clinched collaborations with various multinationals and partners.
“He could envisage desirable outcomes and formulate ways to reach them.”
Suleman said Marsden had been a champion of postgraduates during his 13 years at UCT. He was the founding coordinator of the first Hasso Plattner Institute Research School outside of Germany, established at UCT on the topic of ICT4D.
“Through this initiative he recruited, managed and supported a cohort of PhD students from African countries, many of whom looked upon him as a mentor, friend and father figure during their tenure at UCT.”
Marsden’s father, Roy, thanked everyone for coming to the function. He and his wife, Letta, travelled from their home in Northern Ireland, partly to be at the function to honour their son.
“We were always proud of Gary, but we are even prouder after this.”
Marsden’s daughter, Holly, and son, Jake, said it was wonderful to hear about the impact their father had made while at UCT.
“It’s really special to be here again and to be reminded of the impact he made,” said Holly, who is a first-year UCT student in the Humanities faculty.
Marsden’s wife, Gil, said it was encouraging to hear that the memories are still so vivid despite the passing of time.
“The naming of the boardroom also helps to remind people that it’s not all work and no play. People had a lot of fun in this space. Gary was open-minded, intuitive, spontaneous and fun and I hope that people use this space to continue in that spirit.”
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