Software Freedom Conservancy

Goodbye To Bob Chassell

by Bradley M. Kuhn on July 3, 2017

It's fortunately more common now in Free Software communities today to properly value contributions from non-developers. Historically, though, contributions from developers were often overvalued and contributions from others grossly undervalued. One person trailblazed as (likely) the earliest non-developer contributor to software freedom. His name was Robert J. Chassell — called Bob by his friends and colleagues. Over the weekend, our community lost Bob after a long battle with a degenerative illness.

I am one of the few of my generation in the Free Software community who had the opportunity to know Bob. He was already semi-retired in the late 1990s when I first became involved with Free Software, but he enjoyed giving talks about Free Software and occasionally worked the FSF booths at events where I had begun to volunteer in 1997. He was the first person to offer mentorship to me as I began the long road of becoming a professional software freedom activist.

I regularly credit Bob as the first Executive Director of the FSF. While he technically never held that title, he served as Treasurer for many years and was the de-facto non-technical manager at the FSF for its first decade of existence. One need only read the earliest issues of the GNU's Bulletin to see just a sampling of the plethora of contributions that Bob made to the FSF and Free Software generally.

Bob's primary forte was as a writer and he came to Free Software as a technical writer. Having focused his career on documenting software and how it worked to help users make the most of it, software freedom — the right to improve and modify not only the software, but its documentation as well — was a moral belief that he held strongly. Bob was an early member of the privileged group that now encompasses most people in industrialized society: a non-developer who sees the value in computing and the improvement it can bring to life. However, Bob's realization that users like him (and not just developers) faced detrimental impact from proprietary software remains somewhat rare, even today. Thus, Bob died in a world where he was still unique among non-developers: fighting for software freedom as an essential right for all who use computers.

Bob coined a phrase that I still love to this day. He said once that the job that we must do as activists was “preserve, protect and promote software freedom”. Only a skilled writer such as he could come up with such a perfectly concise alliteration that nevertheless rolls off the tongue without stuttering. Today, I pulled up an email I sent to Bob in November 2006 to tell him that (when Novell made their bizarre software-freedom-unfriendly patent deal with Microsoft) Novell had coopted his language in their FAQ on the matter. Bob wrote back: I am not surprised. You can bet everything [we've ever come up with] will be used against us. Bob's decade-old words are prolific when I look at the cooption we now face daily in Free Software. I acutely feel the loss of his insight and thoughtfulness.

One of the saddest facts about Bob's illness, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, is that his voice was quite literally lost many years before we lost him entirely. His illness made it nearly impossible for him to speak. In the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of regularly hearing Bob's voice, when I accompanied Bob to talks and speeches at various conferences. That included the wonderful highlight of his acceptance speech of GNU's 2001 achievement award from the USENIX Association. (I lament that no recordings of any of these talks seem to be available anywhere.) Throughout the early 2000s, I would speak to Bob on the telephone at least once a month; he would offer his sage advice and mentorship in those early years of my professional software freedom career. Losing his voice in our community has been a slow-moving tragedy as his illness has progressed. This weekend, that unique voice was lost to us forever.

Bob, who was born in Bennington, VT on 22 August 1946, died in Great Barrington, MA on 30 June 2017. He is survived by his sister, Karen Ringwald, and several nieces and nephews and their families. A memorial service for Bob will take place at 11 am, July 26, 2017, at The First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, MA.

In the meantime, the best I can suggest is that anyone who would like to posthumously get to know Bob please read (what I believe was) the favorite book that he wrote, An Introduction to Programming in Emacs Lisp. Bob was a huge advocate of non-developers learning “a little bit” of programming — just enough to make their lives easier when they used computers. He used GNU Emacs from its earliest versions and I recall he was absolutely giddy to discover new features, help document them, and teach them to new users. I hope those of you that both already love and use Emacs and those who don't will take a moment to read what Bob had to teach us about his favorite program.

Tags: GPL

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