Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding Sharla Boehm

When I first researched the story of Sharla P. Boehm and published it in March, I hoped very much that it would be widely distributed and that in a small way I could show my appreciation for the brilliant but sometimes forgotten people, many of them women, that built the foundation of the technology world where I've spent my career. The posting built slowly, and only a few saw it in the first days of publication, but it's slowly taken off to where it's on the verge of being the most popular blog post I've written. Interest in the blog picked up considerably when geekfeminism.org included it in their Linkspam Agenda for April 24, leading to an entry in the Geek Feminism Wiki for Sharla. But the real breakthrough came in the form of an email on Mothers Day from Barry Boehm, Sharla's husband of 54 years.
Everybody — It’s a bit of a stretch to call Sharla the Grandmother of the Internet, but I was recently pleasantly surprised to receive a link to a blog that celebrated Sharla’s lead authorship of the first computer program to demonstrate the feasibility of packet-switched networks: the organizing principle of the Internet.  Here’s the blog’s Internet address; I hope you enjoy it... P.S. to Michael Berman: Thank you for brightening Sharla’s life.  She had a stroke and has limited speech and mobility, but her spirit is still strong.
The message, sent to Sharla and Barry's friends and family all over the world, generated messages of appreciation and support, many from people who had known them both for years but had never heard of Sharla's important contribution to the pre-history of the Internet. I also received the beautiful photo above from Tenley Burke, Sharla and Barry's daughter.

It's wonderful to know that she has had a chance to see that her significant achievement has been celebrated and will be remembered henceforth. It's also a pleasure to know a bit more of her personal story, filled in by a brief bio that Barry sent. Sharla Perrine was born in Seattle in 1929 and moved to Santa Monica in 1932 where she has been since. She received a degree in Mathematics from UCLA and became a math and science teacher in Santa Monica middle and high schools. In 1959, she started a brief stint at Rand Corporation. She and Barry met at Rand while they were waiting for their security clearances to come through! In 1961 she returned to teaching but continued to work for Rand part-time, including her seminal work with Paul Baran.

Sharla and Barry had two daughers, Romney and Tenley, and became a full-time mother and homemaker in the mid-sixties. She was active in her community through Girl Scouts, youth sports, and as a member of the board for her local library. (Tenley mentioned that when she posted a link to my blog on her Facebook page, it elicited responses from many women who knew Sharla as their scout leader.) They continue to live in Santa Monica in the house they moved to in 1966.

Here's a salute to Sharla and Barry and all the people that they've touched in their lives and through their teaching, and as parents and grandparents. Everyone has a story, and everyone can make a contribution. Sharla had the skill and the focus to make a significant contribution to the early days of the conceptualization of the Internet, and I'm sure she made a huge difference in the lives of many students she taught in school and encountered later in her community, and of course for her family. I am so very glad that I was able to find the real person behind the name on the Rand publication. The tools that Sharla and Barry helped create through their careers made it possible. Thank you Sharla, Barry, and Tenley.

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