In memoriam: Al Kellie

By Staff
09/13/2016 - 6:00pm

NCAR lost a beloved and respected colleague when CISL Director Al Kellie passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on 7 September 2016. Al will be remembered for his considerable contributions to NCAR – especially his forward-looking stewardship of its high-performance computing resources – and for the way he truly cared for his employees both professionally and personally.

headshot of Al Kellie at NWSC
Al Kellie

“I will always remember Al for his deep dedication to NCAR, the joy he took from his daily work with colleagues across the organization, and especially his strong commitment and loyalty to the staff of CISL,” said NCAR Director Jim Hurrell.

Doug Nychka, Director of CISL’s Institute for Mathematics Applied to Geosciences (IMAGe) program, said, “The purest part of Al’s management was how he valued his staff. What I learned from him was just being patient with people and staying honest went a long way to inspire respect and build trust.”

Prior to arriving at NCAR, Al worked more than 30 years at Environment Canada’s Meteorological Services of Canada (MSC). There Al managed the supercomputer and telecommunications centre, located at the Canadian Meteorological Centre in Dorval, Quebec. His responsibility was to operate the largest NEC supercomputer complex outside Japan. In his last years with MSC before joining NCAR, Al served as the Director General of the Canadian Meteorological Centre.

Al joined NCAR in 1998 to be the new Director of the Scientific Computing Division (now CISL). Under his leadership, NCAR transitioned from a parallel vector supercomputing environment to massively parallel clusters of microprocessors, delivering a staggering 30,000-fold increase in sustained computing capacity to atmospheric and related sciences over his tenure. CISL’s success during the nearly two decades that Al was at the helm was tied to his management philosophy.

“Al was a champion for his team,” said Helen Moshak, NCAR Operations Director. “He believed in empowering people, supporting them in taking risks, allowing them to learn from their mistakes, and celebrating their successes.”

Some of Al’s staff had a fond nickname for this management style – the ability to simultaneously support people while holding them accountable – that gave a nod to his roots. “Being Canadian as well as American, Aaron [Andersen] and I have always called him the Hockey Manager,” said Gary New, Operations Manager at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC). “He would ‘check’ you into the boards once in awhile just to make sure you were paying attention but he wouldn’t micromanage. Al understood processes need to run their course and he trusted his people to make things happen. He also understood that everyone plays a role in an organization’s success.”

In 2003 Al spearheaded NCAR’s effort to design, fund, and construct a new computing center to support future generations of power-hungry, high-performance supercomputers. By 2009 this effort had matured into a successful proposal to the NSF for constructing the NWSC in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Al was extremely proud of the award-winning NWSC when it opened in 2012, and it quickly became a case study in international supercomputing circles for exemplary design and construction.

Al Kellie in front of NWSC floorplans
Al Kellie poses in front of floor plans for the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center

“The NWSC was his pride and joy and the best way for us to honor him is to keep things moving forward with professionalism and pride,” New said. “The NWSC was a monumental undertaking and Al’s support, leadership, and guidance are key factors in its success.”

It was his visionary approach to the field of high-performance computing for the atmospheric and related sciences that led Al to prominence in the international arena. He represented NCAR at the World Meteorological Organization working group committees for data management, observations, and telecommunications, most recently serving as Chair of the Working Group on Data Processing. Al also served on the advisory panel for the Blue Waters supercomputer located at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

This week, CISL is taking delivery of “Cheyenne” at NWSC, NCAR’s new supercomputer. Al was extremely proud and excited to see a second supercomputer installed at the facility.

Al is survived by his wife Jean Grill, his two children Karma Cyr and Robert Kellie, his brother Duncan Kellie, two grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at the Mesa Lab at 1:00 p.m on Sunday 18 September. All of Al’s family, friends, and colleagues are invited to attend to share memories and to comfort and support each other as we start to come to terms with our loss of this important, respected, and loved member of the NCAR family.

In lieu of flowers, friends are encouraged to make a donation to the memorial fund, established in Al’s honor by his wife Jean. The fund will support education efforts in CISL such as materials for educational events, special efforts in working with K-12 groups, etc. Use of funds will be at the discretion of the CISL Lab Administrator and CISL Director.

Memories or condolences for the family can be left at the funeral home's tribute site.