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ROBERT WOFFORD TATE

Born: September 3, 1940
Died: February 9, 2018

Robert Tate was born in Montgomery, Alabama, son of Albert Clark and Minnie Belle Wofford Tate. Bob came to Yale from Wakefield High School, Arlington, Virginia.

At Yale Bob was a resident of Branford College, on Dean's List, a ranking scholar, and member of Tau Beta Pi. Bob was in NROTC and was commissioned in the Navy after his graduation. He pursued a 5 year electrical engineering program and was awarded his bachelor's and master's degrees in 1963.

Our classmate Bill Boehmler volunteered an excellent obituary, combining memories of Bob, glimpses of his humor and achievements and capturing the story of his life. I reprint Bill's essay in full:

Robert Wofford Tate, in his days at Yale, was variously know as Bob, Robert, Wofford, Woff, Woof, Toot, and Tate. Perhaps his middle name should have been "Prank". In his freshman year his room was over the Dean's office, and Robert found himself sitting in that office attempting to explain the water dripping on the desk of Harold B. Whiteman. He later obtained some sort of barrage balloon and inflated it in his dorm living room, trapping his roommate in the rear bedroom. He convinced friends that he flunked out first semester of freshman year, and spent the next few weeks skulking around campus with the hood of his Loden Coat pulled low.

Bob was brilliant and often referred to as "the brightest guy I've ever met." Several midshipmen (Bob was an NROTC Regular) wouldn't have made it through the Navy's mandatory Math 12 without his tutelage. For an EE project, Bob built a machine that would run back and forth on a track and balance a broomstick in the air. Knock the broomstick and the device would race down the track to keep the broomstick from falling. Those were analog days, making the feat even more impressive. To make the thing work he resorted to a "fudge factor" which neither he nor his faculty advisors could explain - but it worked.

Bob had trouble waking up in the morning and devised an alarm clock to address the problem. It featured a 200 watt light bulb and a 130 decibel alarm - above the threshold of pain. Roommates John Blouch, Klaas van Esselstyn, and Ed Worthy can testify to its effectiveness. It awakened half of Branford College each morning, but unfortunately not Bob. John had to solve the problem with a wet washcloth.

Bob graduated with a five year Master of Engineering degree, and reported for duty in the Navy aboard the USS England, a guided missile cruiser. Ensign Tate did not serve his fair share of watches, being instead in demand as the Captain's bridge partner.

Bob could be stubborn and persistent. Aboard ship he found himself working navigation charts with a parallel ruler and a pencil. He invented a computerized maneuvering board that was faster and more accurate than the traditional hand methods. He tried to sell his device to the Navy but ran into a frequent reaction: "Well I always did it by hand and it's good for 'em." A more likely problem was that the Navy was computerizing entire ship operating systems, of which the maneuvering board was one very small part. Bob arranged an endless string of meetings with any authority who would listen, including Captains and Admirals - all to no avail.

Bob received his Master of Science degree from Cal Tech while on active duty (no mean feat), and then went to work for Hughes Aircraft as a software engineer. Returning to Atlanta, he moved to positions with a law firm, the Southern Company, and Equitable Life. These firms were moving into the age of computers and information systems. He purchased a house that he came to love in the Virginia Heights section of Atlanta where he became a fixture in the neighborhood, and made many friends.

Sometime in his fifties he withdrew from the working world. The house on Virginia Avenue became his life project. He developed real competence as a finish carpenter, mason, plumber, craftsman, designer and architect. He designed an exceedingly complex electrical system for the house. It had many features similar to those of a Google Home or Amazon Echo twenty years before those wireless devices came along. His approach involved switches and relays and incredible runs of wiring. A visiting Yalie found himself impressed with Bob's newly acquired skills, accomplishments and projects still on the drawing board. Bob was taking great pleasure in his new skills and future plans. Having the opportunity to be his own man obviously suited him.

Bob had a litigious streak, and no slight or perceived injury was too minor to be dismissed. He always seemed to be taking one contractor or another to small claims court or wrangling with a manufacturer over disappointing product performance.

Two class of '62 visitors in recent years found Bob in a daunting mess of half-finished projects. Like his father who suffered from dementia, Bob had developed Alzheimer's. He described the affliction as "holes in his brain" which prevented him from making connections. He found completion of his many projects impossible, although he kept trying.

He was fortunate to have a friend who handled basic financial tasks for him, allowing him to remain in his home. He later found a caretaker who moved into the house and provided what amounted to around the clock care. The caretaker, Angel Navarro, became a close friend. Elvira Tate, widow of Bob's older Brother Albert kept an eye on his wellbeing. His last years were not unhappy.

In early February Bob suffered a stroke and was briefly hospitalized before returning to the home he loved. He died peacefully on the ninth of February. Bob's Yale and Navy pals treasure memories of their many good times with him. He was a truly good friend.

With thanks to Bill Boehmler

Bob Oliver




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