Remembering Professor Bill Grosky

November 23, 2020

Colleagues share their memories of a beloved computer science professor who died earlier this month.

The late Professor Bill Grosky was an elderly white man with thinning gray hair and rectangular, black wire glasses. He was standing in front of the Detroit River, wearing a pinstripe button down. This photo is black-and-white.
Photo courtesy Terry Ruas

This article was originally published on November 23, 2020.

Veteran computer science professors whose tenures date back to a time before computers were everywhere are often stereotyped as gruff, impersonable folks who are laser-focused on their work and little else. Not Bill Grosky. When we reached out to colleagues and former students to share their memories of the UM-Dearborn professor, stories poured in painting Grosky as a warm-hearted, well-rounded person who loved his field, long impromptu conversations, gourmet food and world travel.

Professor Yi Lu Murphey knew Grosky perhaps longer than anyone in the UM-Dearborn community. He was actually her master’s thesis adviser when she was a young computer science student at Wayne State, where Grosky was considered a pioneer in database science. There, Murphey recalls many “passionate lectures that were always delivered without any notes.” The two continued to stay in touch afterward, and Murphey remembers her excitement when Grosky left Wayne State to come to UM-Dearborn in 2001. The two picked up right where they left off, with frequent drop-by-the-office conversations that were often lengthy and always lively. “If I wanted someone to brainstorm any new technologies with me, I’d head down to his office. It was hard to find a spot to sit, of course — his office was wall-to-wall books, and there were books piled up on every surface. But the conversations were wonderful because he was always passionate about new ideas.”

Professor Marouane Kessentini says that was one of the really remarkable things about Grosky, whose expertise evolved continuously to keep up with the rapidly changing field. He actually started out as an applied mathematician, earning degrees from Brown, MIT and Yale, before pivoting to computer science. In recent years, Grosky’s research included a branch of artificial intelligence known as natural language processing. “One of the very last discussions I had with him, in fact, he was telling me how he was learning new programming languages,” Kessentini says. “I think it was just a part of his personality. He told me once that one of the luxuries in academia is that we have the opportunity to learn every day. He fully embraced that.”

Kessentini told us Grosky was one of the main reasons he was drawn to UM-Dearborn. Aware of Kessentini’s love of big city cultural amenities, Grosky took time to personally show him around downtown Detroit after his faculty interview. It was that kind of earnest personal interest in his colleagues that Kessentini says made him an effective leader, particularly during the many years Grosky was CIS department chair.

Outside his work in the academy, Grosky loved long, unscheduled conversations, classical music, comic books (he had a collection of more than 5,000), good espresso and gourmet food. Kessentini and Murphey both shared fond memories of dinners with Grosky and Roslyn, his wife of 55 years. “He absolutely loved food. One time I remember he challenged me, claiming to know more about Chinese food than I did.” (Murphey grew up in China). “And as proof, he offered a list of dishes and asked me if I’d had any of them. Of course, I’d never heard of most of them; I had to explain to him that those are Americanized Chinese foods! He was just so much fun. A real adventurer. It’s hard to accept that a person so full of life has passed away.”

Grosky’s former doctoral student Terry Ruas, who’s now doing a postdoc in Germany, also took the news hard. Despite a large age difference, Ruas and Grosky struck up what can only be described as a best friendship, which included daily conversations, dinner or lunch together at least twice a week, and traveling to 10 countries together.

“When I arrived at UM-Dearborn from Brazil in 2015, I just walked into his office and said, ‘Hey, I’m Terry, I’m going to be your Ph.D. student,’ and we just immediately got along. I spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas with him; his Jewish holidays, too — I’m not Jewish, but I was right there with him to celebrate. We traveled together to India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany and Japan. I think he’d been to more than 50 countries in all. If I get to one-third of the places he’s been, I’ll have lived a happy life.”

Best friends Ruas and Grosky during one of their many trips abroad. (Photo courtesy Terry Ruas)
Best friends Ruas and Grosky during one of their many trips abroad. (Photo courtesy Terry Ruas)

Ruas says one of the biggest lessons he’ll take away from his friend and mentor is the fact that, despite being a respected scholar, Grosky didn’t let work dominate his life. "In the end, Bill thought work was part of your life. He always made space for all the other things that made him happy. He would say to me all the time, 'It’s good as long as you are having fun.'"

Even with Ruas living abroad, the two friends kept up their weekly calls — up until the last week of his mentor’s life. Grosky died on Friday, November 13 after a short battle with cancer. He was 76 years old. 


You can read more about Professor Bill Grosky and share your own memories on his obituary page.