Clay Sprowls Passes Away at Age 89

Clay SprowlsDr. R. (Riley) Clay Sprowls was born on July 22, 1921, in the upstairs bedroom of his maternal grandparents' house. He spent his first eight years in Niagara Falls but, after his father was laid off in the fall of 1929, he moved with his parents back to where he was born, his grandfather's home in Medina, New York.

Although a child of the Depression, Clay had a full life of school, friends, summer and odd jobs, sports and hometown activities, just little cash - like most everyone else he knew. When he went off to college, he felt "rich" with a $50 per month allowance from his grandfather.

Clay's formal education began at the 5th Street School in Niagara Falls. He always felt it was something like University Elementary School (UES, now the UCLA Lab School), which his children attended. The fact that classes were loosely structured and students had freedom to seek out information and organize projects on their own taught him to be proactive about learning. His love of education, combined with a comfort level with public speaking and positive experiences with tutoring, seemed like indicators he would end up teaching. He also felt that his four years of Latin in high school and college prepared him for the computer and FORTRAN, since both were languages read and written, but not spoken (which may also have explained his unrecognizable spoken French).

Clay graduated from Medina High School in 1938 and the New York State College for Teachers (now SUNY Albany) in 1942, expecting to teach high school physics. However, by the middle of his senior year of college, the U.S. had entered World War II. After a post-college course in Explosive Chemistry at Ohio State University, he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He was sent to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD, to study electronics, then transferred to Oahu, Hawaii, where he and his company spent the remaining wartime repairing weaponry. While he deliberately avoided officer candidate school, after the war he spent two semesters at a new Army University Center where he studied statistics, economics and accounting. The accounting instructor, Captain Roland Funk, discovered Clay's growing interest in graduate school in statistics and economics and suggested he apply to the University of Chicago, whose faculty included Allen Wallis who spent the war years at the Statistical Research Group at Columbia, a place recognized for advancements in applied statistics. Moreover, the school had close ties to the economics department that was one of the best in the country (including Milton Friedman and other Nobel-prize winning economists).

Clay began the graduate program in statistics in June 1946 on the GI Bill. Although he originally envisioned getting a master's degree and working for an advertising agency in Chicago or New York, the Dean offered him a $700 fellowship to continue on for a Ph.D. He married a fellow student in December 1950, Ann Sprowls (née Hannah Cohen), completed his Ph.D in Statistics in June 1951, and was hired by Dean Neil H. Jacoby as an Assistant Professor of Statistics at what is now UCLA Anderson. Originally, Clay was the only statistician in the school. The Dean charged him with developing a business school statistics curriculum, with the first MBAs majoring in statistics graduating in 1954.

In 1952, Clay discovered something called an electronic computer, SWAC by name, built and operated by the Numerical Analysis Research group at UCLA. Fascinated by SWAC, he taught a first computing course in 1953 as a Special Topics course in Statistics. He and five students programmed SWAC to do standard statistical calculations. In 1955, he chaired a faculty committee to make a recommendation on an IBM proposal to establish a large-scale computer center at UCLA.

When UCLA and IBM signed the 10-year contract in 1955 for a Western Data Processing Center (WDPC) that would always have the most advanced IBM computers, Clay became part of its staff and ultimately its Director. WDPC was announced as the world's first university computing center devoted primarily to the study of complicated business management problems. WDPC provided computer time, non-credit courses in programming and machine operation, solutions to data processing problems for masters' and doctoral theses, and support for educational projects in teaching departments at UCLA and eventually 103 other participating institutions. Through its closure in 1966, the intent was to keep WDPC at the forefront of computing with the newest IBM models as they became available.

Clay was able to establish a curriculum for students to major in what later became Information Systems, the area into which he moved completely by 1960. UCLA was growing in stature and he had what he thought was the best of all possible worlds. In 1962, he was promoted to Full Professor. He advised and chaired the dissertation committee for the first Information Systems Ph.D. in 1971. This was Dr. Lew Leeburg who recently retired from the UCLA Anderson faculty. He served as Department Chair from 1979-81. He travelled the world, giving lectures and courses in places from Europe to Bangkok, Russia to China, including sabbaticals in Denmark and in Israel at the invitation of several former Ph.D. students on the Tel Aviv University faculty. When his daughter learned of his involvement with some of the earliest data processing work in the country - such as computerizing the addressing of envelopes - she began to kid him that he was one of the fathers of junk mail.

Clay was active in the world of computing and academia for 39 years until he retired in 1990, and continued consulting with IBM for a time after his retirement. He later taught himself HTML and spent many hours in UCLA's archives to create a website chronicling the early history of computing at UCLA. Visit the site at

Clay stayed busy in his retirement, including travels with his wife, son, and daughter, hobbies, and writing his autobiography. After his wife, Ann, passed away in November 2002, he developed a satisfying new hobby: using various media to create "minimalist" art, which he showcased annually at the Emeriti Art Show on campus. He also still came to campus to see friends and attend arts programs and concerts, which indulged his love of music.

In late 2009, he made the decision to move to Sacramento to be closer to his daughter. Because he had been surrounded by young adults most of his life, he found "retirement living" difficult, and after a year, gladly gave up senior living to move into a shared home with his daughter Sharon and her partner George. He very much wanted to make it to "four score and ten" but fell short by 10 days due to complications of an infection and long-term heart disease.

In his autobiography, Clay wrote that, "The characteristics of helpful, kind, friendly and courteous were always very important to me and I made sure that they showed up in my teaching." Wrote his former UCLA colleague, Jim Gillies, founding dean of the Faculty of Administrative Studies (now the Schulich School of Business) at York University in Toronto, "Clay was a remarkable man. A fine scholar and a great colleague but much more; he was a person of great character - totally honest, totally caring and totally principled."

His daughter asks that any remembrances be made to either:

UCLA Bruman Summer Music Festival
c/o Sarah Murphy
1309 Murphy Hall
Box 951413
Los Angeles, CA 90095

The Music Guild - Strings for Students Program
6022 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 203
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 954-0404