Remembering Bruce Littlefield, ECE Departmental Alum and longtime Employee

Bruce R. Littlefield passed away on August 12th 2020 at the age of 74.  Bruce, an ECE major, graduated valedictorian of his UMaine class in 1987 and remained at UMaine to receive an MS in ECE.  Bruce served as the Systems Administrator for the department until his retirement.   Below are recollections of Bruce from his Departmental colleagues and friends.

If you never knew Bruce, you missed out on knowing a genuinely good person. Bruce had a remarkable life in that he had an ordinary life lived with dignity.

I came to UMaine in 1985.

Bruce was in my very first class, ECE 314. He was this “old guy” who was very quiet but “wicked” smart. (I’m not sure, but Bruce Segee might have been in that class as well?)

That was the only class I taught with Bruce in it. He was a digital guy and I am not.

Two years later I went to graduation (on the football field) in part because Bruce was the class valedictorian. Grade inflation was not rampant back then, so was valedictorian based on his essentially perfect GPA. Back in those days, the valedictorian gave a ten minute speech. I don’t recall a great deal of what Bruce said, but I do remember that he deviated a great deal from the typical content. He undoubtedly gave a speech that Bernie Sanders would have loved. It was interesting that the guest speaker spoke right after Bruce was done and that guest speaker was none other than Steven King. Needless to say, his speech was not ordinary either! I think in part because of Bruce’s speech, that was the last year that the valedictorian gave a speech at graduation.

I don’t recall a great deal about Bruce’s life before UMaine but I know he was a laborer in many places doing many different things. One thing he did for quite a while was work as a longshoreman. I believe that is where he first became a labor leader and union representative.

After graduation, Bruce stuck around to get a Master’s degree. We had no computer engineering program back then, but it was in the works. He was essentially the first graduate student in computer engineering. Bruce worked for the department as our IT guy. That was back when our Mac Plus computers were connected via AppleTalk that ran over phone wires we placed in the ceiling running down the hallway. (Later a small group of us ran ethernet cable down the hallway. Back in that day the cable was coaxial cable, not twisted pair.)

Bruce was the person who essentially created and maintained our entire IT infrastructure. Andy Sheaff was Bruce’s “right hand man” in a lot of that work. Bruce learned everything about linux, file servers, email servers, etc. etc. on his own. We were at the forefront of the entire campus for many years with regard to IT because of Bruce.

I was asked to serve on Bruce’s master’s thesis committee. That is when I got to know Bruce better. I recall that he sat down and wrote his thesis over a period of three weeks while still taking classes and working as our IT guy. I was shocked by Bruce’s thesis. You are probably well aware of how rough many master’s theses are when first presented for review. Bruce’s was not. It read like a professional paper in the IEEE Proceedings. I was stunned.

Around that time I wrote some MATLAB code for control systems with my Ph.D. advisor who had one of the most popular undergraduate control systems books on the market. We turned the software into a book by Prentice Hall. I wrote the software; my advisor wrote the text illustrating the use of the software. This was back in MS-DOS days and the software was on a 3.5″ floppy disk glued to the inside back cover of the book.

Right after that book came out The Mathworks wanted to produce “The Student Edition of MATLAB” and have Prentice Hall write the User’s Guide to go along with it. It too came with floppy disks in the back of the book. The folks at Prentice Hall asked me to write the entire User’s Guide in eight weeks! I wanted to do the work, but I knew that I could not do it in that amount of time. So, given what Bruce did on his Master’s thesis, I walked into Bruce’s office and asked him to work on it with me. If anybody could make the job possible, Bruce could. We would split the $8k proceeds. Bruce was great to work with. He was good, very good. He had very little if any familiarity with MATLAB back then because he was a digital guy and no longer a student who would encounter MATLAB. But that didn’t matter. He jumped on the work and did a great job.

That was the start of my collaboration with Bruce. When we took the User’s Guide job, I told the editor at Prentice Hall that we would do the job if the work could be expanded and become a traditional textbook on the use of MATLAB. At that time there was very little documentation that came with MATLAB. The help inside of MATLAB was limited to ASCII text dumped to the command window. There was nothing online. As a result, Bruce and I became the authors of the Mastering MATLAB series of books that spanned five editions and sold over 175,000 copies. We again split the proceeds 50/50. Various editions were translated into Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and maybe others. Our book was so good at the time that The Mathworks bought thousands of copies of the third edition, Mastering MATLAB 5 to use internally and to use in training courses. Through all five editions, Bruce was a diligent hard worker. I never had to edit anything he wrote. When he put words on the page, they were clear and concise. I am so grateful that I was able to help put ~$250k in royalties into his pocket.

Bruce was a unique person. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who was so focused and devoted to the issues faced by those who have little and seemingly little going for themselves. I think this was partly due to all the years he was also one who had little. Bruce just had the huge intellect to have a lot going for himself.

It does not surprise me at all that Bruce was in the 98th percentile of finishers at the 2019 World Series of Poker (a poker tournament that has a $10k buy-in.) With his intellect, I can just picture him calculating the odds in every hand and being able to have a “poker face” throughout it all.

It has been a joy of mine to have known and worked with Bruce. He had a remarkable life.

I know that I will cherish Bruce for the person he was for the rest of my life.

Duane Hanselman, Emeritus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering