Frederick Hennie III, dedicated architect of MIT EECS, dies at 90.

Fred Hennie III, Professor Emeritus in the Department of EECS, was the Executive Officer of the department from 1976 - 2001. Photo courtesy the Department of EECS.

Frederick “Fred” C. Hennie III, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), died on Monday, October 23rd, 2023. He was 90 years old.  

Fred Hennie was born Feb 9, 1933, in New Jersey, the only child of Anne R. Hennie and Frederick Hennie, Jr, and attended Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey. From a very early age, his serious and reserved demeanor contrasted with his wider, more boisterous family. “My cousin Fred was always unique in our family,” remembered his relative, Louise Rutledge, who remembered his visits home on break from MIT when she was very young. “Fred would dutifully say hello, and I would tell him it was time for the “arm swing”.  Again he would dutifully extend his arm, and I would grab on and tell him he should swing me round.  After that delight, I would usually go on to torture him with my latest “new” jokes……..with much tedious repetition.  Then it would be obvious that Fred needed “to study”, and I would retreat downstairs. Fred was unfailingly polite, soft spoken, and often monosyllabic. The only adult who was able to converse with him seemed to be my mother. When others asked how she did it, she laughed and said that Fred was not interested in small talk, and one needed to figure out what interested him, and spend some energy and thought in your questions. As I entered my own professional years, it was clear that Fred’s substantial intellect was not just limited to his areas of expertise, but was incredibly far reaching in subject matter.” Attending MIT for electrical engineering, Hennie was noted not only for his clear and lucid writing style (his PhD thesis on the topic of cellular automata drew attention from many), but also for his great talent for crafting examples and explanations which students could easily grasp. 

In this black-and-white image held by the MIT Museum, Fred Hennie stands third from the right in a row of graduate students receiving Excellence in Teaching Awards.
In this image held by the MIT Museum, Hennie stands third from the right in a row of graduate students receiving Excellence in Teaching Awards. The museum’s caption reads, “H. Guyford Stever presenting graduate students with excellence in teaching awards (L-R)Jerome Wiesner, Stever, Paul E. Gray, Robert P. Rafuse, Frederick C. Hennie III, Charles W. Merriam III, and Leo Jedynak.”

Hennie graduated from the Institute with his BS in 1955, going on to earn his MS in 1958 and his PhD in 1961. He immediately took a faculty position within the department; with a brief exception for a stint as a visiting faculty member at UC-Berkeley, he would go on to spend the entirety of his adult life at MIT, becoming an associate professor in 1966, a full professor in 1968, and Executive Officer of the department in 1976. He would hold that position until 2001. 

While his importance to departmental functioning would grow, and his impact would be felt by many generations of students, his public profile remained low, as the intensely private Hennie found his niche refining procedures, honing curricula, and contributing to some of the thorniest research problems of his day. “In 1976, I was teaching recitation sections of 6.042, which was led by Fred Hennie,” remembers Ron Rivest, now Institute Professor and Professor Post-Tenure of Computer Science and Engineering. “It was a great introduction to ‘teaching EECS–he was always so careful and precise. Around that time, Adi Shamir, Len Adleman, and I came up with the fundamental structure of the RSA public-key cryptosystem. I think Fred’s meticulous approach to everything was key to our success.” 

In the recollections of all who worked alongside him, Hennie’s extraordinary attention to detail was remarkable. Nancy Lynch, NEC Professor of Software Science and Engineering (Post-Tenure), first encountered Hennie as she was completing her graduate work at MIT in the early 1970s. “He gave me a copy of his book draft for an undergraduate algebra course (sets, number theory, groups, rings, fields, etc.). These notes were impeccable and thorough, and were a terrific reference for the field. In fact, I used them in 1974 as the main text for an algebra course I taught at the University of Southern California.” When Lynch later returned to MIT EECS as a faculty member, she worked with Hennie in her role as Assistant Department Head. “For some reason, I mentioned to him that I was wondering how many different courses I had taught during all my time at MIT. A few days later, Fred gave me a complete, semester-by-semester list of everything I had ever taught at MIT since 1981.”

Three books on logical circuits and computing are laid out on a patterned tablecloth.
Three titles written by Fred Hennie, whose writing was renowned for its clarity. “[As a student] I found his book on computability, which was the clearest explanation of things I found hard,” said Charles Leiserson. “His explanations were just beautiful. Then I did my PhD on the topic of systolic arrays, and Fred had done a lot of fantastic work in his PhD thesis on the topic of cellular automata. I don’t think there was anyone else whose work I knew more intimately than Fred’s by the time I arrived at MIT.” Photo credit: Jane Halpern.

Charles Leiserson, now Edwin Sibley Webster Professor, was another arrival to the department who found himself impressed by Hennie’s observational gifts. “I had a student in one of my classes who was cheating, and Fred was his academic counselor, so we arranged a meeting. The student was quaking in his boots, but Fred started out by saying to the student, “Now, this is a difficult situation we have here; what do you think we should do?” And then Fred was quiet for what seemed like an eternity.” Faced with nothing but patient silence, “the student opened up. There was, of course, an enormous mess in the student’s personal life; the cheating was almost a cry for help. We were able to get him good counseling and so forth, but Fred’s silence was really brilliant.” Leiserson later learned that the technique Hennie so deftly applied had a name: powerless communication. “Usually when you think about communication, you think about power and making your point. But that’s not a good way to build relationships. Fred, in that short preamble, flipped the dynamic. He asked for advice, which conveyed respect and showed that he valued what the student had to say. Not only that, but he let the student break the silence. That was such a good lesson for me as a junior faculty member.”

Hennie’s inclination towards teaching and instruction led him to a long engagement as the department’s Executive Officer, a broad position which not only oversaw all educational activities, but also dealt with the myriad complex administrative systems required to handle the movement of thousands of students from matriculation through graduation annually. In this role, he was assigned an administrative assistant, Lisa Bella.  “I worked with Fred for more than half my life,” remembered Bella, now the Administrative Coordinator for Education Officers within the department. “I was his AA for about 15 years before moving up to a staff position. I think many of us felt we never really stopped working for Fred, even when he stepped down as Executive Officer.  Keeping accurate records, whether database records or paper historical records, was very important to Fred – what was retained in his rolodex brain was just as impressive.” In her role, Bella saw a playful side of Hennie that few others witnessed: “Fred created imaginary characters and entered them into the department database for trouble-shooting purposes,” she recalled. The practice sometimes backfired, as Bella would try to track down real information for the fictional Beatrice Bumble. Bella also noted Hennie’s daily habit of walking to and from work from Brookline. “Leaving early, he’d put on a fisherman’s hat or wool fedora, walk by my office and say “Cheerio”,” said Bella. “I’d always respond, “Rice Krispies”.” 

Others who worked closely with Hennie described a deliberate, deep thinker whose advice was always carefully considered. Former EECS Department Head John Guttag, now the Dugald C. Jackson Professor in Electrical Engineering, remembered Hennie as a trustworthy advisor. “When I was offered the job of Assistant Department Head by Joel Moses (then the Dean of the School of Engineering), Joel advised me that I wouldn’t make any drastic mistakes so long as I consulted with Fred. He was right. During the time I spent as an Assistant Department Head and then Department Head, Fred was a source of sound advice on a variety of topics, and I have to assume he served the same role long before I entered the picture. Fred was the departmental leadership’s institutional memory.” 

A long series of EECS department heads came to rely on that institutional memory. W. Eric Grimson, now Chancellor for Academic Advancement, Interim Vice President for Open Learning, Bernard M. Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering, and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, remembered his reliance on Hennie: “Fred was a source of sage advice during my tenure as Head of EECS. Although a very private person, he was a keen observer of organizational dynamics, and provided quiet but very thoughtful advice on department organizational structure and on navigating the dynamics between different parts of the department. Additionally, Fred was decades ahead of his time in collecting and curating data and using it to inform departmental decisions. The database he built, maintained, and enhanced was an incredible source of useful information, and was available years before MIT centrally caught up.”

“His passion for the department and its operations was phenomenal,” said Anantha Chandrakasan, now dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “As a department head, I worked very closely with him. Fred had tremendous attention to detail and he covered a range of critical departmental issues – from tracking appointments to all aspects of the EECS databases. He was always available to provide sage advice on the operations of the department. It was truly an honor interacting with him and I was greatly inspired by his passion.”

Despite his marked devotion to the department, Hennie’s closed-off nature kept many at arms’ length. ​​MIT President Emeritus L. Rafael Reif remembered when, as a young academic in 1980, he accepted an offer to become an assistant professor at MIT–requiring a cross-country move from Palo Alto to Cambridge. “Fred was a very reticent man and just as cautious with MIT funds as he was with his words. He did not say a great deal, but he implied that there was not much money for anything. As a result, I was almost certainly the cheapest hire EECS ever made. My wife and I put all our belongings in our car. We did not have a lot—we barely had a car. As we traveled cross-country, we pitched a tent in campgrounds on our way.  Because it was winter, we took the southern route, but it was still a chilly journey. When I arrived at MIT, I gave Fred all my campground receipts for lodging. I did not give him any meal receipts, as he did not ask for them. He did not offer any help with housing. Luckily for me, one of my brothers was doing his PhD at MIT at the time. He, his wife, and their two little kids had a tiny apartment, but they graciously accommodated us while we looked for a place to live. I did not think much about all of the above, as Fred led me to believe that that’s the way it was. As a grateful immigrant from Venezuela, I was happy to receive the “standard” startup package. I just did not realize that the standard package was… nothing. It took me years to understand that in the U.S.—or at least at MIT—if you want something, you have to ask for it.” 

However, as time went on, Reif learned more about his reserved coworker. “Fred was very pleasant to be with if you did not mind no conversation. He was there with you, but he never said much (at least not to me). However, one thing was always clear to me: His life was EECS. And EECS is what it is today—the largest department at MIT and the best program of its kind in the world—thanks, in great measure, to Fred Hennie, and his clarity of mind, devotion to his field and his students, and many gifts as a teacher.” 

That dedication led Hennie to work for the department long past when others might have retired. In later years, he made a purely nominal move to part-time employment, focusing on database management and working alongside Helen Schwartz and Myron Freeman; he continued to walk to work daily until COVID closed the offices. Schwartz, who began her time in EECS working alongside Hennie as a database programmer and eventually became database administrator, recalled the vast and complex nature of the data they grappled with. “We started developing a fairly massive database to store as much information as possible relating to the entire academic development of the student, minus the grades. Courses that they took; teaching assignments; TA appointments; benchmarks;  requirements…we had to enter all the courses that were available, match them with what the students had taken, and see if the person had been staying on track.” She remembered Hennie as undaunted by the challenge. “Fred was an extremely brilliant person in the sense that he would never be afraid of new things coming his way,” she recalled, noting that in the time she worked alongside him, the department database shifted from using MULTICS database, to a large relational database dedicated entirely to the EECS functions, collecting student and faculty data.

Helen Schwartz, a lady wearing a lace top and beaded necklace, toasts Fred Hennie, a man wearing a striped shirt and pocket protector. Both wear expressions of pride.
Helen Schwartz and Fred Hennie raise a glass at Schwartz’s retirement party. Photo courtesy MIT EECS.

As perhaps Hennie’s closest coworker, Schwartz caught rare glimpses of his outside interests beyond the walls of the department. “He was an avid photographer,” she remembered, “and created an extraordinary collection of photographs from all his trips to Scandinavia. He would go to places that he’d been before many times, taking pictures of things that he did before in a new light and creating a very different aura or impression of the same place.” And although he never discussed his own history or revealed even the most mundane personal details to his coworkers, his voracious reading habits showed that he was a close, even fascinated observer of the human condition. “Only after I retired, I would go visit him and he would give me bags and bags of books that he was trying to unload,” said Schwartz. “He absolutely loved to read history; American history was his favorite topic. He was an incredibly devoted and devout Democrat, and his political views very often brought him to specific authors; he read stories of people who built this country. He liked mystery; especially the Scandinavian authors; he read a lot about morality, social behavior, and people’s interactions; that was very important to him.”

Over the many years they worked together, Schwartz grew to greatly admire her coworker, and to see beneath his sometimes prickly exterior to a profoundly kind man. “He was an interesting person in the sense that he was extraordinarily old-fashioned in many senses. He didn’t like fast changes, because they are frequently not very well-considered. But socially and politically he was an extraordinarily respectful person. He might criticize someone for making the wrong choice. But he respected human nature. I know that many will disagree, because he was not an easily approachable person. If you ask people, many might say, “who are you talking about? Fred?! He was cold and indifferent!” No. He was not cold and indifferent. He nurtured people. And MIT was his life.” Cousin Louise Rutledge agreed, adding, “Now, after his passing, going through his files and paperwork, it is abundantly clear that what Fred valued was his work at MIT, the colleagues with whom he maintained contact, the wonderful library that he built with an amazing variety of subjects, his photography from decades of travels around Scandinavia and Europe, and last but not the least, his lifelong relationships with a handful of close friends.”

Those close friends, and the Department to which Hennie devoted so much of his life, will miss him greatly. Donations in memory of Fred Hennie can be made to his three favorite charities: Habitat for Humanity, Mass. Audubon, and the Nature Conservancy.

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