Goodbye To Bob Chassell

Post Syndicated from Bradley M. Kuhn original http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2017/07/03/Chassell.html

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 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.


I found out we lost Bob through the folks at the FSF, and I don’t at this
time have information about his family’s wishes regarding tributes to him.
I’ll update the post when/if I have them.

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.