Beyond Vassar

Vassar's Computing Pioneer

By Lance Ringel

The term visionary is inadequate to describe Professor Emerita Winifred A. Asprey ’38. Almost four decades ago she wrote that computers would “have a cultural impact that will cut straight across the curriculum” and predicted “with certainty” that interaction with computers would “soon be regarded as an essential part of a liberal arts education.” Her forecasts have proved true, as “computers have become vital to all aspects of cultural life on campus. Witness the Media Cloisters in the library and the fantastic computerization in the Center for Drama and Film.”

Dr. Asprey—known as Miss Asprey to generations of undergraduates, and as Tim or Winnie to friends—had a Vassar mother, grandmother, aunts, and cousins. Her destiny seemed intertwined with the college’s from the very beginning. In fact, she recalls, “I almost got kicked out of class in the eighth grade, because we were given an assignment to write about the three colleges we would aspire to, and I wrote only about Vassar. For me, there was no other choice!” It was a good one. Despite Girl Scout summer camps and a postgraduate year at Brownell Hall in Omaha, Nebraska, she remembers herself as “a very young, naive, shy girl from Sioux City, Iowa, who had never before been as far east as Chicago, and faced Vassar with excitement and a certain trepidation.

“That soon vanished,” she adds. “Upperclass students welcomed us so warmly that I felt at home from the beginning. I landed in a triple on the first floor of Main South. One roommate, a graduate of the Dalton School in New York City, impressed me with her sophistication—she was allowed to walk the streets of New York on her own! My other roommate, from upstate New York, invited me to her home over short vacations and provided dates for dances. Three kind and understanding professors I shall never forget: Mathilde Monnier in French, Inez Ryberg in Latin, and Louise Duffield Cummings in math.”

In the spring of her sophomore year Asprey chose her major, with mathematics barely winning out over French. On returning in the fall, she met the two professors who most profoundly affected her: Mary Evelyn Wells and Grace Murray Hopper ’28. Wells, chair of the department of mathematics, taught advanced calculus, required of all majors. “I fell completely under her spell,” Asprey recalls. “Never had I experienced such a dynamic teacher who made a 50-minute class go by in three minutes. She was, and remains, the strongest influence in my professional life, the reason I later returned to Vassar.”

“I elected Dr. Hopper’s course, “Probability and Statistics”—a dauntingly illuminating experience. My senior year, I began to realize that my opportunities to explore more and more mathematics were closing down; the Great Depression put graduate study out of my reach. So I audited every class Grace Hopper taught. “Somehow we became friends. I considered her my ‘middle-aged friend,’ although we were only a decade apart in age. Not only did she open my mind to the world of beauty in mathematics, but she also taught me how to write papers (and how to smoke—a habit I gave up for good in 1954!). Hopper left Vassar in 1943 to join the U.S. Navy. After her death the Navy christened a destroyer in her memory. All of us at Vassar continue to enjoy the harvest of her remarkable scientific brilliance.”

During her senior year, Asprey was “one of the lucky ones,” with a job as a student teacher at the Brearley School in Manhattan. “As an undergraduate I had often proclaimed that teaching was not for me, that I was too impatient; but the scarcity of jobs combined with the lure of New York City was irresistible. Brearley changed my mind; teaching was for me.” After two years, Asprey went on to the Girls Latin School in Chicago, teaching Latin and algebra to “spirited eighth- and ninth-graders.” Her mother suggested that she might want to try teaching at the college level, which meant obtaining advanced degrees. “I enrolled in an eight-week summer session at the State University of Iowa—and went on to earn an M.S. degree in theoretical statistics while still teaching in Chicago, simultaneously passing the oral exams required for pursuing doctoral studies.”

Asprey moved to Iowa in the fall of 1943 to pursue her Ph.D., and in 1945 she returned to Vassar to teach, at the invitation of Mary Evelyn Wells. “I was able to settle into life back at Vassar very easily,” she says. “I had a head start; it was like coming home.”

At Vassar, Asprey became an early, indeed prescient, advocate for computer science. “For some time I had been urging upperclass students to look into a career in computing, a field I knew nothing about. On impulse I called Grace Hopper. My question: ‘Should Vassar get into the computing business?’ Her answer: ‘I’ve been waiting for you to wake up!’ I did. At her invitation I spent four days with her group, Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, in Philadelphia, watching her teach ‘the monster’ to do calculus. As I was leaving, she offered me a position for a year if I could get a leave from Vassar. On the train back to campus, I wondered if IBM, being located in Poughkeepsie, might make a similar offer. They did, and I became the first recipient of an IBM Post-Doctoral Industrial Research Fellowship, spending the next year at the IBM facility, then located on the Vassar Farm. A firm relationship developed between IBM and Vassar, which lasted many years. Without their help and expertise, we might well have never achieved our goal of a computer—certainly not within 10 years.

“The greatest thing for me was the final establishment of the Computer Center in 1965,” Asprey continues. “There was faculty resistance, a fear that ‘numbers would take over the world.’ Most of the faculty I practically dragged down to see it. But the students’ enthusiasm won over the professors.” Asprey was named the Computer Center’s first director; and when she notes that “Vassar took a lead in computer science in undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the nation,” she is too modest to add that she, more than anyone else, was responsible.

Asprey cites “enormous support” from IBM; from the National Science Foundation; from universities and colleges long engaged in computer research, notably Dartmouth and Wesleyan—and, above all, from Vassar itself. She notes that Vassar’s sabbatical plan allowed her to do research not only at IBM, but also at the famed atomic laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, as well as at Cal Tech, Pomona College, and UCLA. Outstanding support also came from the administration, specifically from President Sarah Gibson Blanding and her assistant Sydnor Walker ’13, and later from President Alan Simpson. Retiring from Vassar in 1982, Asprey continues to live in her Vassar campus home, originally built by Grace Hopper in 1939. Somewhat immobile in the last few years, she tremendously enjoys visits from former students and remains actively engaged in Vassar’s present and future. Her dream of “seeing computers become as vital to the campus as the Vassar College Library” has been realized. “Vassar has been good to me,” she says.

Indeed, this relationship is a two-way street.