Obituary: Robert (Bob) M. Keller
Loving husband, father, computer science professor, jazz educator, musician, mentor
Robert (Bob) M. Keller died September 13 at age 76 in Claremont after a battle with aggressive brain cancer, his wife and sons at his side.
Bob was an internationally recognized computer scientist and a talented jazz musician. Over the years, he held faculty positions at Princeton University, the University of Utah, and the University of California, Davis, as well as visiting positions at Stanford, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of California, San Diego. His longest and most recent association was his nearly 30 years with Harvey Mudd College, whose faculty he joined in 1991 to become the first chair of the newly formed computer science department.
He was born on June 12, 1944 to Robert and Ella (Marion) Keller in St. Louis, Missouri, where his parents owned a small corner grocery store. The oldest of three children, he grew up living in the family home, which was attached to the store.
As a boy, he enjoyed music, science, math, cave exploring, working on his car, performing magic shows for children’s birthday parties, photography, playing his trumpet in various bands (school, rock, jazz), and helping in his parents’ store.
In 1962, he graduated from high school with honors and earned a full scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis. He earned a PhD in electrical engineering and computer sciences from University of California, Berkeley (1970), and a B.S. (1966) and M.S. (1968) in electrical engineering from Washington University, where he contributed to research on asynchronous modular systems.
As a sophomore at Washington University he met freshman Noel Shaw, who became his loving wife after her college graduation. Their first home together was Berkeley, California, where Mr. Keller worked on his PhD. That was the start of a wonderful, exciting 53-year marriage.
They were quite a team, best buddies and really enjoyed raising their two wonderful, amazing, creative sons. They kept busy work schedules, but always fit in special times to be together. Some of the couple’s adventures included climbing over glaciers to the top of Mt. Rainier in Washington state, having their backpacking tent demolished by a large bear, snorkeling in Hawaii, losing their car brakes coming down from Mt. Whitney, experiencing Berkeley in the late 1960s, cave exploring in California, skiing in Utah, snowshoeing in New Hampshire, canoeing in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, seeing plays in London, exploring museums in Paris, walking on a swaying footbridge over a gorge in Scotland, holding hands strolling through beautiful gardens, dining on a paddleboat excursion in New Orleans, visiting Aztec ruins in Mexico, attending a conference on a Greek isle, hiking above the clouds in Colorado, experiencing the many cultures in Singapore, and lots of camping and hiking in parks across the country, just to mention a few.
Mr. Keller was a rather quiet person who enjoyed learning new things. He brought his trumpet on his travels and was able to jazz jam with others in such places as Dublin, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Paris, London and the San Juan Islands. He taught himself piano and performed locally on trumpet and piano with several bands. In earlier Utah days, he enjoyed performing Baroque music on the recorder and on the harpsichord.
He tried karate, but found he enjoyed running and cycling more. He completed the LA Marathon twice. His wife even talked him into trying some dancing: folk dancing in Princeton, square dancing in Davis and ballroom dancing in Claremont. He was a champion of word games—a real challenge to beat.
He also made time to help in his sons’ open classroom elementary school classes and to be a project leader for 4-H in computers and in rocketry. More recently, he was a mentor for senior internships for the Troy Tech Magnet Program at Troy High School.
Over almost 50 years of teaching, Mr. Keller was a mentor to countless students. He coached HMC’s team in the Association for Computing Machinery International Programming contest for several years, and under his watch they won the world finals in 1997 (making them the first undergraduate—and the last US—institution to have won the contest, joining a list that includes MIT, Caltech, Waterloo, Stanford and Harvard, among others). Alongside the computer science courses he taught on such topics as artificial intelligence, neural networks, computability and logic, computational creativity, software development, parallel and real-time computing and databases.
He also took the time to run a rigorous jazz improvisation class for Claremont Colleges students to nurture their understanding of music theory and ways to channel that into creating their own solos that they would perform at a public concert at the end of the semester.
His interest in cultivating the creativity in others led him to develop Impro-Visor, a computer program that analyzes musical improvisations and uses what it has learned from the previous works of many famous jazz artists to advise users in crafting their own parts. The free, open-source software was released in 2006, and his research teams continued to develop it. In 2019, he was thrilled that, as part of a festival at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, his Impro-Visor program played jazz with another jazz performing program—a world’s first to have two computers independently trading verses back and forth, building off of each other’s creativity. Impro-Visor has a growing user community of more than 8,000 around the world.
In addition to his work in academia, Mr. Keller also held a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for more than 10 years, conceiving and participating in developing a language for controlling unmanned space missions that could be used for both programming and model-checking, as well as contributing to other declarative language research efforts.
He was also a member of the technical staff at the Aerospace Corporation and vice president of research and development at Quintus Computer Systems, a commercial vendor of Prolog language development systems.
He is survived by his wife Noel; sons Franz and Patrick; sister Irma Ward, and brother Dennis Keller.
He will be dearly missed by his loving wife, family, friends, fellow musicians, professional colleagues and former students.
“Bob had planned to retire around age 80, had ongoing and future projects planned and places yet to explore,” his family shared. “He lived his life to the fullest and will be remembered by all those who were touched by his kindness, intellect, insight, creativity and love.”
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions in Mr. Keller’s honor be made to the Jazz Education Network’s Scholarship Program at www.jazzednet.org/donate/; the American Brain Tumor Association at www.abta.org; or the Sierra Club Foundation at www.sierraclubfoundation.org.
A celebration of life for Mr. Keller is pending.