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Brand Fortner

Brand Fortner

Software visionary | Distinguished Alumni Award | Class of 1977

When Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award winner Brand Fortner takes a stroll down memory lane, these are the images that come to mind:

1. Streaking. “It hit the university in 1974, and I vividly remember standing on the Quad, watching nude parachutists floating down south of where we were, and then witnessing one brave streaker climbing the flagpole in front of the auditorium. I think at the time we thought that this craziness would happen every year. Alas, it was not to be. 

“Every time I walk by that flagpole, I imagine that brave boy shimmying up the pole, not a stitch on, hundreds of us — mostly clothed — cheering him on.”

2. PLATO. “In the 1960s and 1970s, the U of I was the home of PLATO, the world’s first graphical online computer community. It was designed to deliver educational programs, but we students who lived in Room 203 B of the Engineering Research Laboratory knew better. Dozens of us wrote some of the first interactive graphical games ever: Empire, Spasim, Rose and Airfight, which I co-wrote. My proudest moment was when my game became so popular, it brought PLATOs multimillion dollar mainframe computer to its knees.”

3. The underground steam tunnels. “The Engineering Research Laboratory had a basement that was normally off-limits to students, but we broke in, and found the remains of the pioneering Illiac computers, scattered in pieces, ready for an archeological dig in the beginnings of modern computing. Connected to the basement were the prohibited steam tunnels, which we of course explored, wondering where we were headed, what was above us.

“There is nothing like illicit exploration to race one’s heart. Today, I walk above ground north of Green, and imagine that, long ago, I was just below the street, wandering the underground.”

4. A brush with celebrity. “In the 1980s, when I was a graduate student in physics, we often ate lunch across the street at the Illinois Street Residence Halls. At the table next to us was John Bardeen, the double Nobel prize winner. 

“As we turned to gawk, I spilled my Coke all over him. He was gracious about it — as he was about everything — but every time I visit campus, I look at the Illinois Residence Hall and think, there is were I touched greatness, or at least spilled my drink on it.”

5. Foellinger Auditorium. “The focal point for some of my fondest memories of the university: Richard Scanlan’s dramatic lectures on classical civilization, Gilbert Haight’s world-famous Christmas lecture on chemistry and a midnight showing of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ which helped me decide my life direction. I pass the auditorium, during visits, and am flooded with these memories.”

6. That first UI visit. “In 1973, I drove to campus for the first time and after a brief stop had put all of my paperwork on top of my car and forgot about them. 

“At the corner of Green and Mathews, the papers fell off my car and carpeted the intersection. A half-dozen kind souls helped me stop traffic and chase down every letter, every form. Later, registration and records looked at my scratched and dirty paperwork with suspicion but no complaint.

"To this day, I pass that intersection and think of those kind strangers, who enabled me to continue my journey to the university.”