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Retired Computer Scientist Nancy Johnston has Passed Away

February 27, 2017

By Jon Bashor
Contact:  cscomms@lbl.gov


Nancy Johnston

Nancy Johnston, former head of the lab’s Visualization Group and wife of ESnet’s Bill Johnston, died Feb. 13 following a bout with cancer. Johnston retired in 2005 after 24 years at the Lab.

In retirement, she was a loving grandmother and became an avid birder, photographing Bay Area birds in the wild and in aviaries and building a detailed website. Her photos and accompanying data can be seen at at Nancy’s Bird Journal.

Bill Johnston broke the news of her death by writing “My life partner of 50 years has died. Nancy Elizabeth Legenza was a strong woman who worked her entire life from high school to retirement, with a year or so out when the boys were infants.”

Nancy got into computing at the lab when she was working for the Bay Area Air Pollution Control District, which used computers at Berkeley Lab. She soon got a job here, but a round of layoffs found her working for Sohio (Standard Oil of Ohio) in San Francisco until the company relocated its headquarters. She then worked three-and-a-half years at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, spending her last year at Berkeley Lab, which led to a position here. Over the years, she headed the UNIX group, the Mac/PC Support group, and the Graphics group, which later became the Visualization Group.

Nancy Johnston poses with Vis Group members

Nancy Johnston (second from right) poses with Vis Group members (from left) Kevin Campbell, Stephen Lau (kneeling), Terry Ligocki, Johnston and Wes Bethel.

In an interview before her retirement in May 2005, she recalled a workshop at the Lab one Halloween during which she and former Information and Computing Sciences Division director Stu Loken sat down at their first visualization machine. “I convinced him this would be a neat system to have and he found the funding. This allowed the group to make the jump from graphics to visualization,” she said. Among the current CS staff members whom she hired are Wes Bethel, John Shalf, and Terry Ligocki. Wayne Hurlbert, a member of NERSC's Mass Storage Group, worked for Nancy when he was a student.

“Nancy Johnston was like a ray of sunshine that shined brightly on those around her,” said Bethel, who was later named to lead the Vis Group. “Even though she had a strong focus on technical issues, she also had a way of being a source of warmth and compassion for those around her. She had a way of finding a lighthearted and positive way of looking at issues, something that made it a pleasure to be her colleague.”

Hurlbert said that her unpretentious, straightforward personality put people at ease, whether debating some aspect of storage systems when they were both members of the mass storage group or enthusiastically discussing nature photography after she retired.

“Nancy was a bit of a rebel, never afraid to be different and always ready to question assumptions (and authority); and not one to put up with a lot of nonsense,” Hurlbert said. “But most importantly she was a friend with whom I always felt comfortable, whether we were having lunch at Saul's; or she was evaluating my contribution to the graphics group when I worked for her early on. And of course she had a wonderful wry sense of humor and a quick wit, able to engage even the best jokers.”

It was during her time as group lead that NERSC and ESnet moved to Berkeley Lab from LLNL. The move required some adjustments on the part of both the newcomers and the groups that were established in Berkeley. To help build a more cohesive organization, NERSC sponsored a series called” Getting to Know You: New NERSC Division Informational Seminars” and Nancy was one of the speakers in 1998.

Nancy led the Vis Group until 2002, when decided to step back from managing and take a technical position doing more hands-on technical work in NERSC's Mass Storage Group.

As her 2005 retirement approached, she had a long list of projects in mind, many putting her considerable skills as a seamstress to use.

“I have a long list of relatives I want to make quilts for,” she said. “My niece is getting married next April and hers will be the first one I make. Then I want to make a cat quilt for my nephew. And one for me. I like to combine my embroidery with my quilting.”

She also planned to continue making doll-size quilts. And doll clothes. Each year, Nancy sewed wardrobes for 48 Barbie dolls, then donated the dolls and clothes to kids in need through Children's Hospital and the Richmond Rescue Mission for Christmas. When she tallied up her work over the years, she realized she had created more than 900 such gift packages.

She was also looking forward to keeping her hands on the keyboard in her volunteer role as webmaster for the East Bay Heritage Quilt Guild, revamping the group's Web site. As a member of the board of the 600-member guild, she will played a key role in staging the biennial quilt show at the Oakland convention center.

 But by 2006, she had picked up a new passion – watching and photographing wild birds.

“In retirement she remade herself as a bird photographer and amateur ornithologist,” Bill Johnston noted. “Unlike me, she kept up her coding skills and built a web content management system to generate her bird site from various databases where she kept the images and descriptive information.”

In a 2008 Computing Sciences news item about Nancy’s Bird Site, InTheLoop editor (and birder) John Hules wrote “A quick Google search suggests that this may be the largest and most comprehensive collection of Bay Area bird photos on the web.”

Bill Johnston also noted that she had indeed made quilts for her relatives, including one she completed a few months ago, sewing together T-shirts Bill had bought in Europe as souvenirs for the grandkids.

Horst Simon, who was director of the NERSC Division when the center started at Berkeley Lab, commented “Nancy was a pioneer, one of the important team members and leaders of computing at Berkeley Lab. She was instrumental in getting NERSC started her. She will be missed.”

About Computing Sciences at Berkeley Lab

High performance computing plays a critical role in scientific discovery. Researchers increasingly rely on advances in computer science, mathematics, computational science, data science, and large-scale computing and networking to increase our understanding of ourselves, our planet, and our universe. Berkeley Lab’s Computing Sciences Area researches, develops, and deploys new foundations, tools, and technologies to meet these needs and to advance research across a broad range of scientific disciplines.