Dennis arrived at Harvard as a freshman in September 1959, after graduating from Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey. Born in 1941 to Alistair English (A.E.) Ritchie and Jean McGee Ritchie, he was just turning 18 when he started college. Dennis was the oldest of four children; followed by sister Lynn (turning 16), John age 9 and Bill age 4.
Harvard was the only school he applied to.
Freshman year he lived in Wigglesworth Hall along with three roommates, Jack Sullivan, Mike Horne (Modern Egyptian History), and John Daugherty (Ancient Languages), all of them from Andover Academy. They became friends and after freshman year they applied for and won the housing lottery, scoring two adjacent suites in Lowell House where they stayed for their remaining three years.
Lowell House was known as an intellectual house. According to Jack Sullivan:
“We were pretty much studying all the time.”
They did play a lot of Bridge together and screwed off in various ways.
“John and I would go out for intramural sports, but Dennis would never join us”, says Sullivan. “He was just a very nice guy.”
“Dennis loved music, he had an expansive record library, some classical some jazz.”
“Dennis was working in computers at Harvard even as an undergraduate. He would come back to the dorm with a stack of punch cards.”
“He was very impressed by your father. I guess what he wanted to do was to impress your dad.”
In his graduate school application essay, Dennis notes that:
“I have been interested in applied mathematics, and especially the aspects of it concerned with computers, since I attended a series of lectures on programming for the Univac computer, in my freshman year.”
During Summers after his freshman and sophomore years he worked in the Gordon McKay Metallurgy Lab. He impressed Gordon McKay professor Bruce Chalmers and freshman advisor Robert A. Myers enough that they each wrote glowing grad school recommendations. Myers especially went to bat for him, saying:
“As his freshman advisor, I saw directly his adult approach to education, and how he chose the hardest scientific courses for which he was properly prepared, filling out his program with courses from other areas in which he was interested. Since then, I have seen this continue, as exemplified by the graduate courses he has already taken, as soon as was possible – perhaps too soon.”
In his essay, Dennis himself explained…
“Perhaps I moved to rapidly in this. I am referring to Applied Math 201 and 202, in which I received C’s. I suspect that during my Junior year I was not quite ready for these nominally graduate courses. I also feel, however, that I could have done better with more effort. My marks that year were in general rather mediocre, and I must admit that it was probably due to less than zealous application.”
We in the family recall how Dennis would tell the story, with some amusement, of how he had taken Russian for three years at Harvard. First year got an A, second year a B, third year a C.
From his essay:
“After my Junior year I spent a summer in the Mathematics Research department at Bell Telephone Laboratories, as a programmer. This further reinforced my interest in the uses of computers, although I became less interested in programming as such and more intrigued with the mathematical effort behind it. I was fortunate enough to be able to do a good deal of the mathematical analysis required by the problems I was assigned, and this was what made the job really worth while. However, I do feel that I will always enjoy programming a problem. During this job I also became quite interested in non-numeric aspects of computer use, such as theorem-proving and language translation, although I was not in direct contact with work of this kind.”
We are pretty sure that Dennis’ supervisor during summer 1962 was our father’s colleague and dear family friend, Bill Keister (Mr. Keister once said this, Dennis never talked about it). Mr. Keister was deeply creative and curious about all manner of things, and was a great story teller. As an example, he sewed these three legged pants and explained…
“My plan is to make these pants, then fold them up neatly and put them into a trunk in the attic, then I’ll go away and die. So when the great grandchildren come to clear out the house and move on, they’ll find these pants and think… ‘Well I guess what they said is true’…”.
Mr. Keister designed a relay based electronic Tic Tac Toe game in 1937, after Claude Shannon came to the Labs for a summer internship. We captured his amazing story on video in Summer 1989.