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Tribute to the late Fred Brooks

"Hold Mission Fiercely!"

Reflecting on the Life of Dr. Fred Brooks
April 19, 1931–November 17, 2022

That Trinity School would have a leader like Fred Brooks in its early years is still a wonder to me. How did we rate that? How can it be that a little Christian school at the end of Pickett Road would have on its early board, and as one of it first chairs, a Turing Award winner and founder of the UNC Computer Science Department, a member of the National Science Board, the manager of IBM’s System/360 project, and the author of the justly famous Mythical Man Month? 'Tis mystery all.

I first met Fred when he was the age I am now. By then he had accomplished more than most of us ever will, and yet, from where I sit, he was just getting going. His last decades were a model of fruitful old age. Trinity School and the North Carolina Study Center stand as evidence of the stewardship of his extraordinary gifts across nearly three decades before his death.

Fred would be the first to insist, quite correctly, that it was Nancy, his wife, who was the true founding member of Trinity School’s original group of visionaries. “I was not a founder of Trinity School," he said, "but I was privileged to be a spectator from the beginning. Many a night I’ve gone to sleep with the Board meeting going on and on in the adjacent sunporch.” Like the mother of John Mark in the book of Acts, Nancy was the woman with the home who gathered all sorts of folks together, partly through her violin teaching and partly through her networks with homeschooling mothers. It was at such a gathering at her home that my wife, Desirée, heard talk of the need for a new Christian school and said, quite presumptuously, “I’ll talk to my husband about that.” The word unhurried is one of the pillars of Trinity’s mission statement primarily because Nancy was its unrelenting champion. And when Fred and Nancy championed something, it was always unrelenting. Stories of their partnership in this way abound.

Fred’s more direct involvement in Trinity started in the fall of 1995, when the Board turned to him to chair the committee that would search for our first head of school. I was the Board Chair then, and so Fred and I worked together closely, interviewed many candidates together, and talked deeply of the kind of leader we needed at Trinity. Our search was hard—we had 39 students, three teachers, no land, and a budget of about $100K—and Jim Lamont cornered me one night in the spring of 1996, towards the end of a disappointing review of candidates, and said, “Chip, I think you should think about whether this is something God is calling you to.” That led to breakfast with Fred Brooks, who gave me wise counsel and sent me off to pray and consider a radical change in my vocation.

I suppose I could chart my course as Trinity’s Head of School from that moment on as a series of Breakfasts with Fred. He was a great lover of that meal, and we met at his house, at the 501 Diner, and at Bob Evans for years and years. He always had an index card in his shirt pocket, with numbered topics for us to discuss, written with his signature green felt-tip pen. Fred was hard on me, but he was also incredibly supportive. I never doubted his love for me, but he would ask hard questions and he would not let them go until we found good answers. Fred helped me understand what some of my greatest weaknesses were as a leader, but he was always for me and was glad that I was serving as the head of the school he loved. It seems to me that Fred was a picture of our Heavenly Father, who, as George MacDonald said, is easily pleased but not easily satisfied. High expectations and strong support—that was Fred.

Then–Board Chair Fred Brooks, attends a Trinity eighth-grade graduation with his wife, Nancy, one of Trinity's founding members.

Fred Brooks served on Trinity's Board of Trustees for 15 years and as Board Chair during the years when we were launching Trinity's Upper School.

He was a fount of wisdom and experience. He told stories from his IBM days and from his many years leading the Computer Science Department at UNC. From Fred I learned the term “management attention units,” and there is no new idea that comes before me at Trinity about which I don’t ask, “Can we afford the management attention units it will take to make this happen and sustain it?” He was a big believer in the value of deliberative bodies, the importance of voting “No” if you did not agree with the majority, and the value of hearing minority reports along with the majority proposal. Fred taught many of us the importance of “coming with a proposal” and putting a motion on the table to make discussion and debate productive and to move the group forward toward decisions and actions. He founded and chaired for many years the Trinity Advisory Council, a group of community leaders who brought much wisdom to an inexperienced Head and a young school. He was a master of Robert’s Rules of Order, but he never lorded that over people. Instead, in his inimitable down-east North Carolina folksy style, he would compare the motions and amendments and substitute motions to plates in a diner on a spring-loaded dispenser: Always deal with the plate on top next.

The mash-up of that folksy style (“Not a’tall”) and an intelligence that was angel-like in its quickness and keenness was part of the magic of Fred’s personality. I have met many smart people in my life. I can think of one or two who might be as smart as Fred Brooks. But I can’t think of anyone who carried his intellect with the humility that Fred did. One year, when Fred and Nancy’s granddaughter was in Trinity’s Upper School and Fred had rotated off the Board, before we found a way to afford a teacher for advanced physics, Fred volunteered (actually, we paid him $1 so we could make him an employee) to pioneer that class. I love the image of a Turing Award winner walking around a high school class, looking over the shoulders of seventeen-year-olds working physics problems. That class also showed me Fred’s posture as a lifelong learner: He was willing to experiment with a flipped pedagogy in that class, sending students to watch video lectures of the concepts for homework and then to spend their class time working problems with the teacher coaching them. There is a small cadre of Trinity students who were once coached by this extraordinary man. I hope they have some sense of the gift they were given. I received afterwards from Fred a concise but thorough and trenchant reflection on the class. And, of course, he extracted from me a promise that we would find a way to fund the class permanently.

Fred and Nancy Brooks sit for an interview at the occasion of Trinity's 20th anniversary. 

Fred’s questions were always good: Questions about how the mission was being implemented; questions about leaders at Trinity, their strengths and weaknesses; questions about policies; questions about how I was spending my time. Even toward the end of his life, when his strokes had greatly impacted his ability to communicate, he still plied us with good questions. I remember vividly a moment this fall when our Education Committee was debating the question about graduation requirements and considering a specific proposal that was before us (thank you, Fred!). On Zoom, confined to his sunporch in a wheelchair and unable to speak more than a few words, Fred asked the committee simply, “Why not?” That two-word question led to a long and fruitful discussion that helped us land on our vote with confidence by the end of the meeting. And I’ll never forget one of his last questions to me, when I visited him recently: “What would you do, if you retired, that would be more fruitful than what you are doing now?”

The church, going all the way back to Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:26), has not always gathered the sharpest crayons in the box—that’s God’s gracious way. But now and then God puts his hand on the best among us, even from the world’s vantage point. Ever since he came to follow Christ in his young adulthood (through the influence of his lifelong friend and scientific colleague, Jerry Blaauw), Fred yoked his life with God, with his Word, and with his people. He and Nancy were for decades the hosts and sponsors of the graduate chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at UNC. They were faithful lifelong members and leaders at Orange Methodist Church, even as they soaked up the teaching also at the Chapel Hill Bible Church. Fred was a bold witness for Christ in official and unofficial ways. I’ll never forget his keynote at UNC’s Alumni Center, when computer scientists across the globe had gathered for a symposium in his honor. Fred took that time to share his life through several key moments and he didn’t miss the chance to share his faith in front of that august crowd. He told me that it was his practice to invite his doctoral students to come visit him after their successful defense of their dissertations, to come to his office where he could share with them about his faith in Jesus. Mindful of the power dynamics and careful to walk wisely in the world, he was always ready to give a reason for the hope that was in him. That hope was in the death of Jesus for his own sins and the resurrection of the faithful in Jesus. For the nurturing of that hope, he shared with me that hymns long sung and remembered were a great comfort to him in his final years. The last time I saw Fred I took with me a video of Trinity students and faculty singing some of those hymns, ending with the whole Lower School singing the “Non Nobis.” I don’t know if Fred heard those songs last Tuesday, but I know he is singing them now and forever.

“Hold mission fiercely!”

Those were Fred’s parting words when he left the Board in 2012, being term limited (he came back on a few years later and served again until his death last week). Fred was valiant and unrelenting in his view that the Board is the guardian of the mission of the school, and he worked tirelessly to keep us focused on the whole mission. He was especially passionate about those parts of Trinity’s mission that can be countercultural, and that therefore need more vigilance lest they wane or wander: our Christian mission, our classical curriculum, and especially our rich yet unhurried education that is rooted in the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason. Many of my breakfasts with Fred were spent talking about whether we were drifting from these and what we could do to anchor the school for the future. Fred was a big believer in written policies. “As Trinity grows, formulate more written policies.” Our Naming and Honoring Policy for fundraising, our School and Family Time policy, and large sections of the Expanded Mission Statement were proposed and promoted by Fred in his various roles.

I will end with Fred’s own words, which he spoke to our Board back in 2012 and which still ring true to me a decade later, on the occasion of his death:

You hold in your care a God-wrought precious jewel. Trinity has been richly blessed….Iron sharpens iron and diamond polishes diamond, so I have tried to serve as a loving gadfly, asking hard questions and expressing unpopular opinions, to polish the jewel.

Indeed he did. Thanks be to God for the life of Fred Brooks. Thanks that his life intersected Trinity’s founding in such important ways, and thanks that we can carry on his work of holding the mission firmly.

Chip Denton
Head of School
Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill