Memories of Herb Dershem
Prof. Dershem was the main reason I attended Hope. He met with me and my parents on a campus tour and his kindness and openness made me feel like I would be at home in the Computer Science department.
Long hours in the computer room trying to finish a programming assignment and poring over the printouts of the program's output from the ancient Sigma 6 computer trying to find the bugs.
The Computer Club and the one-time guest speaker Grace Murray Hopper who told stories from the early days of computers and handed out nanoseconds.
In my last semester, the sudden appearance of a terminal alone in a room in the basement of Phelps. Now we had 24-hour access to the computer! Those of us who knew about it tried to keep it a secret so we'd be able to use it whenever we wanted to. But unfortunately word got out and it was soon busy at all hours of the day and night.
- Beth Smith ‘82
In many ways, Hope College Computer Science and Dr. Dershem are indistinguishable. You can’t really have one without the other. My first experience with Dr. Dershem was through many phone calls during my senior year of high school. As he called, you could tell he was interested in me as a student, but he was more interested in how the process was going, and being as helpful as he could. Through his phone calls, Hope went from last on my list, to first. Dr. Dershem’s calls made me feel like more than a quota, I could tell that Hope’s Computer Science department was a place that wanted me to shine. Dr. Dershem’s influence on the department was much more than being its biggest advocate. I could see his passion for research every summer in the department’s summer research program, a program that was near to Dr. Dershem’s heart. Moving to a major research university after Hope, I can tell you that you don’t often see professors with Dr. Dershem’s experience teach with his passion. You don’t see your professor at chapel, or on the intramural tennis courts. Most of all, they don’t know your name, much less anything about you. Dr. Dershem wasn’t like most other professors. He loved teaching, even theory. And it didn’t matter what class it was. He brought passion (and Steven Wright) with him every day. The first and only rule to the Steven Wright jokes: you can’t crack a smile, and certainly not laugh, because the longer you withheld, the longer Dr. Dershem would continue reading jokes. As soon as he put the jokes away, he would inevitably introduce the days lecture by saying, “Today, we are going to learn about one of the most important and exciting things in computer science!” We confronted him about this once, saying, “I thought yesterday was the most important thing we’ll ever learn.” His reply, “That was until today!”
Dershem influence in my life reached far beyond the classroom. I think
the most powerful memory I have of Dr. Dershem occurred while presenting my summer
research poster. He approached, and we began talking. I mentioned
that I had decided to travel to
Taking a brief moment to reflect, Dr. Dershem has had an impact in my life in so many ways. My passion for computer science, for social justice, for my marriage, for research and teaching has all been influenced by Dr. Dershem. So I guess it is no surprise that I am studying to be a professor, to be a researcher, and to extend the passion Dr. Dershem instilled in me to a new generation of students. Dr. Dershem always brings equal parts passion and humility to every thing he does in life, and it is these traits that have left the greatest impact on me. For all that Dr. Dershem has accomplished, I know he would much rather talk about the accomplishments of his former students, of the department, of his children and grandchildren, so I suppose it is only fitting that we celebrate Dr. Dershem and the 35th anniversary of the department together. As I mentioned before, it is hard to tell where one starts, and the other leaves off.
- Jim Boerkoel ‘05
really enjoyed having Dr. Dershem as one of my professors at
joy of what he
was teaching. Then there was the ever present "almost a yard stick":
it hardly ever left his hand. His Steven Wright jokes brought many a smile to
my face: I even used some for a stand-up comedy session this last summer. It
was also fun to play intramural tennis with Dr. Dershem: even though he and his
partner whooped my team every time. I think my most random memory of Dr.
Dershem is sitting next to him on a plane trip back to
- James Post ‘06
I grew up down the street from Dr. Dershem but never really knew Herb until I attended Hope. I remember his classes were always great and the programming assignments would get you to think - I still have my Data Structures and AI texts if I can't fall asleep at night and need some light reading ;-) I'll never forget the pizza party we had at his house for the CS students - was a good time. At first I wondered what the motive was - like maybe he needed some yard work done. Between Herb, Gordon and the other CS faculty, I'll be forever grateful for the time they took to educate me as a student. They worked out an internship which allowed me to get my first job out of college which has attributed to my success as someone in the IT field.
- Chad Heidema ‘91
I was considering colleges to attend, Herb had a large impact in my choice to
- Dirk VanBruggen ‘09
"I wrote a few children's books...not on purpose." -- Steven Wright
It is amazing the things you can learn from a guy who starts each class with a quote from Steven Wright. I think he used those quotes in the intro class to weed out the people with no sense of humor. The funny thing is that Dr. Dershem was more successful being a Steven Wright impersonator than Steven Wright was. Look at the skills he so easily passed on, from class to class.
He exemplified the quiet confidence needed in the computing profession. Nobody taught me better than Dr. D that just because you're good at something; it doesn't mean you need to be arrogant about it. Quite the opposite, you should use your skills to enhance the lives of others. And he was scary smart. Sometimes, he'd make linked lists and pointers seem so effortless, I would put off doing the homework he assigned until a few hours before class. Not smart. Oh, and nobody can write the "ampersand" on a chalkboard with as much grace and flair as Dr. D. I never heard him brag about that either.
Dershem is a true teacher. I remember
occasionally asking for assistance on his assignments. Whether in person or by email, he'd
graciously give me the information I needed without giving me the answer. Dr. Dershem knows that answers are the easy
part, finding them is the hard part. I thought
I was in heaven when he said his tests were "open book." That was until he passed them out. Again, he'd always be willing to point me in
the right direction, on the tests, as an advisor, and as a four year
mentor. Rather than telling me what he wanted
me to repeat, he showed me how to think. Most of the time, I just need a fresh
perspective, just like what makes Steven Wright so funny.
"My socks DO match. They're the same thickness." --Steven Wright
- Josh Krikke ‘01
I remember on several occasions going into Dr. Dershem's office to ask him a question about an assignment. Very often, while explaining my problem to him, I would suddenly realize what the answer was all on my own. I would thank him (he would question, "For what??" and off I'd go. One time, he said, "I should hand out 'blow-up, life-sized' dolls of myself. I could hand them out to students, and when they are stumped, they could go and talk it over with the 'fake me'". It was his way of saying that the answers to most problems really lie inside of us. Sometimes we just need to talk it over to figure it out. That is a lesson I have taught my own kids. Thanks, Dr. Dershem, for believing in me 25 years ago and teaching me to dig down inside of myself for the answers. God bless you.
- Mary (Weber) Stutzman ‘84
He was a very dedicated teacher who really loved his subject. I remember classes where he would get very animated and pace excitedly as he explained the value of recursion. His knowledge of the history of computer science made learning about old programming languages much more interesting, and he was willing to lead an independent study for me when I couldn't take a class due to a study abroad. Finally, and most importantly, Dr. Dershem had an open door and was always willing to listen and offer advice on whatever was on my mind.
- Josh Morse ‘05
I remember some very fun team assignments and Herb stressing the importance of working as a team; depending on others and their new ideas. This has also been invaluable in the past 25 years. Clear and concise tests to measure our understanding. Fair grading, a nice sense of humor, wry smile, a maturity that set a strong example to follow, professionalism... contrasted at times with students in the front row wearing shorts, flip-flops, and on a warm March day at that! The confidence I gained from all my CS classes at Hope, and the liberal arts courses too, have carried me very far...I could go on for pages. Thanks so much to you, Dr. Dershem, for being an advisor, professor, teacher, example, to me and countless others that have been in your program through the years.
- Douglas J. Hall ‘85
Dershem was the single most influential person in my Computer Science education
and my whole career. He was so
understanding and non-judgmental and patient, he inspired me to earn my degree
in CS from
- Erin Pantera ‘03
Whenever I had a class with Dr. Dershem, I had a sense of confidence because I knew that no matter how difficult the concepts were that I was trying to grasp, Dr. Dershem always had a way of explaining it in a manner that was easy for me to understand. I think that this was one of his greatest gifts as an instructor: the ability to communicate concepts to students in a way that maximized their ability to understand and apply them.
- Brian Vroon ‘90
Back in the time before cell phones,
ipods and personal computers, there was a small group of computer science
For some reason I had one of the highest scores in the game. Now I have to recall that one of the geniuses was disqualified for hacking into the scoring system and giving him a perfect score. Herb made a point of taking me aside to tell me how excited he was that I had done so well. He said, “You know you can go out there and compete with anyone for a computer job. I know you will do great things in the industry.” Well as you can imagine, the words meant a lot to a mere mortal like me. For the first time I felt I could actually walk among the computer gods, if just for a couple days.
Thank you Herb, for taking the time to infuse some confidence into a young computer scientist. I have proudly spent 29 years and counting in the industry.
- Tom Chandler ‘80
I have many fond memories of Dr. Dershem from my time as a CS undergrad at Hope during the years 1988 - 1992. I remember Dr. Dershem as always being interested in his students and willing to listen and help. He was very approachable as a professor and adviser.
My most recent memory, however, is from 2008. I had returned to Hope in 2005 part-time to study mathematics (an adventure in which I am still engaged). While registering for my math class for spring semester of 2008 I noticed that Dr. Dershem was teaching a 2-credit course in computational theory immediately following the math course I was planning to take. I thought that this would be a terrific opportunity to take a course from Dr. D again so I signed up for the course. I enjoyed the class very much. Dr. D was still lecturing with that same enthusiasm and wit that I recalled it from my undergrad days 16+ years earlier.
I also appreciated the interest Dr. Dershem showed in my current academic and career plans. He took time out of his schedule on a couple of occasions to meet with me to discuss my goals. I sincerely thank Dr. Dershem for his contributions to Hope, to the Computer Science Department, and to my life. I wish him all the best during his retirement!
- Mark Gilmore ‘92
Dr. Dershem was the smartest man in the world. He held a PhD in Computer Science back when most people didn't even know such a discipline existed. What's amazing to me now is how he kept current all these years with the latest and greatest in technology changes and innovations. I know for my own career, keeping up with the latest trends has proven to be an ongoing challenge… Dr. Dershem has certainly lived a lifetime of learning so as to teach his students to be productive members of the companies they set out to serve.
Dr. Dershem made computer science fun. He had always a smile and a story for us. He wisely allowed us to make our mistakes, and then gently pointed us down the correct path. He was approachable. He enjoyed our questions and never made us feel insignificant. He possessed no aire of superiority...not Dr. Dershem. He could speak at our level and allow us to realize the truths he was teaching in our own way and in our own time.
- Tanya (Taylor) Fowler ‘83
Dr. Dershem was one of the great inspirations in my life. He had a tremendous impact. It wasn't just about how he approached a single lecture or problem. It wasn't an incident. It was an attitude. I looked at Dr. Dershem, and thought, "Hey, that looks like fun." Ultimately, for all of us, it comes down to a job, a career, or a lifestyle. For Dr. Dershem, academia was clearly a lifestyle. There was something far more important than the paycheck or the title. He took it seriously, had fun with it, and brought best of himself into it. He was an educator and a researcher. He ran competitions for students as part of his classes. He competitively evaluated algorithms, bringing theory and practice together in interesting ways. Ultimately, it always looked like he was having a good time. Every day. There are probably a few stories I could tell about Dr. Dershem. I do seem to remember the Honeywell Sigma Six mainframe and the green JCL cards rather clearly. For you youngsters, this was back in that prehistoric period when Van Zoren was not only a library, but an entirely separate building. Room 101 was filled with key punches and teletypes (O.K., well, two of the teletypes and three to four key punches at one time). This was even long before the Nixie tube calculators had invaded the Math-Science reading room. I think there may have been torches on the walls of the old Carnegie Gym, and a horse trough outside of Vander Werf. I'm certain buffalo roamed freely.
Ultimately I can close my eyes and I can see Dr. Dershem exactly as he was when I first met him --- in his mid to late twenties with a head of brown hair. I even recall specific topics from lectures that Dr Dershem gave (e.g., the Boyer-Moore algorithm).
My memory is suspect, but I might recall a brightly colored (and wildly patterned) shirt worn with a leisure suit. Flowers I think. Not silk, but a synthetic blend. The suit itself was a mid-range shade of blue (not powder blue, not navy blue, just some polyester shade not found in nature). Perhaps a white belt and white shoes. Those memories are quite fresh.
Frankly, for a few fleeting moments it does seem to me as though this is all far too soon. Then I do the math. Sigh. (Of course, it all could not have been *that* long ago because I think I still owe Dr. Dershem an assignment. I'm working on it.)
So, here we come to the big point: Like many of Dr. Dershem's students, it's been a few years. The technology has changed. I've been separated in time and space from the classrooms and labs where I learned to think about algorithms. Yet, Dr. Dershem's example endures. He was a standard bearer. I still think about those days. The information is still current. I try to be both an educator and researcher. I often competitively evaluate student algorithms and ideas exactly the way I was taught. Plus I reflect on what I learned at Hope and still think to myself, "That looks like fun." In brief, Dr Dershem is one of the true good guys.
(Oh, one more thing: As Herbert well knows, the *other* stories will come out if the money isn't at the drop point precisely on schedule.)
- Douglas M. Van Wieren, Ph. D. ‘88
Dr Dershem was one of the best professors I ever studied under. He was always there for me when I had a question. He is a very patient man. He also has an excellent way of presenting new ideas in class. Two Life Lessons I learned from him were:
1. Break large problem down into small and work on the small until the large is solved
2. Mistakes are only mistakes when you do not learn something from the experience.
- Peggy Bidol
Dr. Dershem --
I remember that when I was interviewing at Hope, my father and I stopped by and you showed us around the CS department and answered my questions about the CS program. I always tell people that the reason Hope stood out above other colleges was the quality of the people I met when I was there -- and you were one of the ones who made such a positive impression on me. Your kindness, friendliness, and EAGERNESS to get to know me and answer my questions was something that made me feel instantly comfortable and sought after by Hope College. It made a real difference to me that the professors and staff would be so personable and interested in my progress as a student.
For those reasons and more, THANK YOU! And I hope your retirement goes wonderfully :-)
- Stephen M. Foust-Christensen ‘07
"It doesn't matter how fast the sort is, if it doesn't put the elements into the right order."
We had been put into small groups, and each group was assigned to implement a handful of different sort algorithms. 20% of the grade for the assignment was to be determined by the relative speed of each type of sort among those produced by the groups. Professor Dershem had let it be known that the absolutely fastest known external files sort was the Polyphase Merge Sort. He also let it be known that said algorithm was fully described in Knuth's Art of Computer Programming, Volume 3: Sorting and Searching, available for perusal in his office.
Well, no one in our group particularly wanted to work on the external files sort, so I volunteered. I remember going to the office and reading through the pages that described the famously fast sorting algorithm. I remember thinking, "Huh?", and then "Maybe the one before this makes sense." This pair of thoughts continued through a seemingly endless set of external files sorting algorithms, until I got to the first, most basic external files sort algorithm. When I got there, I thought, "Aha! I understand how this one works. I'll implement this one, then come back later and figure out the complicated one."
I implemented the basic sort, tested it thoroughly, and got distracted by the need to spend time on other classes. I never went back and re-did the assignment using the Polyphase Merge sort. So, I had to turn in the basic algorithm implementation that I had. When the grades were handed back, I was somewhat surprised to learn that I had received full points for the fastest external files sort. It seems that mine was the only one turned in that actually put the elements into the right order! Afterwards, each person from the other teams who had done the external files sort wanted to know how I had figured out the Polyphase Merge. The looks on their faces when they'd learned what I'd done was priceless. This leads us to the second "lesson".
"Get it working first, then make it as fast as it needs to be."
Concentrate on getting the thing right first. Then work out how to make it do the right thing faster. As it turned out, the simple, direct, understandable algorithm produced a simple, direct, understandable implementation. It produced an implementation that worked and, as it turned out, was fast enough to meet the performance goal. Those who concentrated on speed first forgot the first lesson.
- Ronald W. Heiby ‘79
My memories of Herb Dershem extend years before I had him as a professor. I always knew him as a caring, patient, thoughtful teacher and a loving father. I vividly remember just how anxious I was to have him as a professor for the first time. I knew that I would learn and be challenged. I knew that he would ask us to think and really understand the material. I remember that when the class was over, I was more excited about learning than when I began.
What I remember learning most about my first class with Dr. Dershem (Data Structures) was that the kind, caring, thoughtful father that I had known all my life was not all that different from Dr. Dershem, the professor. I realized that just as he had always made time for me throughout my childhood and encouraged me to think for myself he did the same for his students, always making time for them and doing whatever he could to help them succeed.
- Aric Dershem ‘92
While I am no longer in the computer field I still find the basic concepts and skills I learned in Dr. Dershem's classes still serve me well. Perhaps the best lesson is the example he set by his attitude. A new problem or concept is an opportunity to be enjoyed and to be worked on together. Thank you Herb for sharing your skills and yourself and building a Comp Sci program of which we are proud.
- Doug Knapman ‘78
I just wanted to express my appreciation
and congratulations to Herb Dershem for his dedication to the students at
- George Blaske ‘77
Dear Dr. Dershem,
I want to express how much I have appreciated your counsel, teaching and advice over the past 15 years that I have known you. As my advisor at Hope, your encouragement kept me pursuing a CS major when it was often a struggle, especially during my freshman and sophomore years.
I have enjoyed getting to know you and Kate more since I left Hope and appreciate the advice you have given me over the years. On this occasion of the department's anniversary and your upcoming retirement, I just wanted to let you know what a positive influence you have had on my career through your role as teacher, advisor and as my friend.
Thank you! God bless you in your retirement!
- Anita (Van Engen) Bateman ‘98
I started at Hope in the fall of 1975 and was a "mathematics with a computing emphasis" major. You and John Whittle were the two computer science teachers in what was then a single department, along with John VanIwaarden, Eliot Tanis, Frank Sherburne, Jay Folkert and other long-time faculty in mathematics.
You were my advisor all fours years, even though I completed my major early on and got interested in (and started taking many courses in) philosophy and religion and psychology--the areas in which I later pursued graduate degrees. And you were a very good advisor: understanding, caring, available. I knew you would always listen carefully and give me honest and wise counsel.
You were also an excellent teacher: well-organized and clear, tough but fair, eager to help and always willing to answer any question. And even as a student I had a sense that you, with one of the first bonifide Ph.D.'s in computer science, were on the cutting edge of your field.
When I joined the Hope faculty in 1994 I was pleased to see that you were still here and that computer science was now its own department. It came as no surprise to learn that you were department chairperson. On your retirement I offer my heartfelt thanks for your graceful presence in my life and in the lives of so many others here at the place we call Hope.
- Steve Bouma-Prediger ‘79
I think the highlight of my college career was the day Dr Dershem asked me to look at some code with him. I doubt that I provided any real help, but the fact that he asked for my help was obviously memorable.
- Bob Myers ‘75
Way back in fall 1989, as a first-semester freshman at Hope College, I took one of your beginning Computer Science courses. I was a bit leery because I admit I thought I had signed up for a course along the lines of “computers kinda scare me but I’d like not to be scared,” and found myself instead in the foundational course for Computer Science majors. But starting with day 1, your descriptions of the field (for example: it’s puzzles – and hey, I love puzzles), fascinating classes, frustratingly challenging but then so very exhilarating to finally solve programming assignments, and firm but friendly and unwavering support, helped make that class my favorite-ever college course, and you one of the professors I look back on with the greatest appreciation, even today.
Fast forward more than a few years, and I am now a tenured Associate Professor in History at SUNY Potsdam, in very-far-upstate New York. I never did get a minor in Computer Science, instead focusing on English and French at Hope, and eventually earning my Ph.D. in History of Science at Wisconsin-Madison. These days I teach world history, African history courses, and history of technology courses, but I’m also active in our College’s efforts to create a more welcoming, inclusive, and supportive environment for students of all identities and backgrounds. This afternoon I’ll be speaking to our campus’s Computer Science majors about why diversity in Computer Science matters, what implicit (and explicit) biases are, and some ways to address biases.
Planning this afternoon’s presentation-workshop has reminded me how much good teachers matter, and I wanted to tell you – however late and long after the fact – that you are one of them, and let you know of the strong and positive influence you have had on me. So: thank you.
(Dr.) Libbie Freed ‘93
Associate Professor, Department of History
Thank you so much for these kind words! Lily and I treasure our friendship with you and consider ourselves exceptionally lucky to have been taught by you at Hope! I have never met another teacher of your caliber, anywhere.
There was a legendary basketball coach at UCLA named John Wooden, who singlehandedly propelled UCLA to the highest rankings of college basketball. Wooden is revered here on campus not only for his contributions to basketball but also for his mentorship and wisdom. A common meme at UCLA is, "What would Wooden do?" Every time I hear "Wooden," I think of you. Just like Wooden did at UCLA, you nurtured and inspired and transformed so many generations of Hope students with your teaching and mentorship!
I found your lectures and examples so memorable that I still remember many, 17+ years later. For example, I remember your snowdrift metaphor for the divide-and-conquer paradigm from your algorithms class: if I try to step over a big snowdrift all at once, I'll probably fall and break something, but I can safely and easily walk over it if I make several small steps. The first thought that crossed my mind when I broke my wrist in Alaska in December - "Herb was right" :-)
Another example, from your Java programming class, is how you motivated data encapsulation/information hiding. When you and Mrs. Dershem go shopping, and she asks you how much money you have, you slightly understate the amount, which leads her to say, "OK, then maybe we shouldn't buy that after all." You called that "a little technique that I use." :-) Out-of-this-world hilarious, and a brilliant illustration of the concept!!
I remember your opening remarks from that Java programming class. The first thing you said was that sooner or later, Java will be replaced by some other programming language. So, you asked rhetorically, does that mean this class is a waste of time? No, because programming (and this class) is about solving problems, and there will always be problems to solve! This incredibly powerful insight is lost on so many CS undergrads today. At UCLA at least, there is a strong push from undergraduates for classes that focus on technologies du jour rather than fundamentals -- something we are trying to reverse!
I could keep going down this memory lane forever... I even remember specific homework problems from your classes, like your problem on binary search: determine an unknown integer M using O(log M) comparison queries. I thought this problem was incredibly elegant and instructive because binary search is normally applied to an interval with known upper and lower bounds.
One of my proudest achievements in undergrad is a program I wrote in your algorithms class, which ran in 0.0 seconds on every data set you ran it on. That won me the class competition. When you shared the table of running times with the class, I remember you reassured everyone that you carefully read the winning program and verified that it works. :-) I treasure that memory!
I also vividly remember the myriad personal interactions we had outside of class (road trips, visits to your home, meals with you), and the life lessons you taught us. For example, on a road trip to a programming contest in Cincinnati, you shared with us your philosophy of defensive driving and how you thought it saved you many potential accidents; that really stuck with me.
All the years I've known you, you are always cheerful and welcoming, always meticulously prepared, always with a plan -- the perfect teacher and perfect department commander-in-chief. If there were more people like you, CS would be totally different both as an academic discipline and as an industry. I just can't thank you enough for what you've done for me and so many others.
Lily and I already can't wait to send you our next update! :-)
Alex Sherstov ‘03