Robert was born on Thanksgiving Day 1929 in Gordon, Neb., the eldest child of two teachers, John and Helen Mercer. His father was later the High School Principal and Superintendent of Schools, so he had to be a good student. While living in Gordon, Robert had several jobs, including delivering newspapers (the Omaha World Herald) and special delivery mail, working at a grocery store, tending and harvesting a large Victory Garden, and working, in the summer of 1944, on a farm.
In fall 1944, the family moved to Downey, Calif., where his father had found a job as a high school geometry and physics teacher. Robert attended Downey Union High School and was on the tennis team. He joined the YMCA and DeMolay (a Masonic organization for boys). He got a job as a “printers devil” (apprentice) at a Downey print shop. Robert loved the work and decided that he would like to attend Trade Tech and pursue a career in the news and printing business. His parents, having moved to California in part for the better educational opportunities, eventually convinced him to go to college, and he attended the University of California, Berkeley (Cal) through the NROTC program.
Robert, a math major in the Class of ‘51, enjoyed college life, notably in Cal Hall, when not occupied with his NROTC duties. He worked in his dining co-op and as a math reader. After graduation, he served on Navy destroyers in Japan and Korea as an Assistant Gunnery Officer, Public Information Officer, and Combat Information Officer. He met Cynthia through a mutual friend while stationed in San Diego, and married her on New Year’s Eve, 1952.
After leaving the Navy in 1954, Robert had a summer job at the Navy Electronics Laboratory on Point Loma, using an electronic analog computer. Deciding that this was what he wanted to do, he attended UCLA as a graduate student from 1954-56, taking courses in Computation Methods at the Institute for Numerical Analysis. His Master’s thesis, “Micro-Programming,” was published in Volume 4 #2 of the Journal of the ACM (April 1957). A professor gave him a recommendation to Ramo-Wooldridge and he got a job there.
Ramo-Wooldridge evolved into the Aerospace Corporation’s Aerospace and Space Division. Robert was part of a team that wrote a satellite orbit determination program (TRACE) that has moved from the original IBM 704 to various successor computers and onto a PC. He worked up to be Director of Computing and Data Processing in the Threat Analysis Office, where he was in charge of all aspects of scientific computing and data management on a classified project, organized workshops, worked with the USAF on specialized computer programs, and published several technical papers and reports. In 1977, he went back to school and earned a Certificate of Specialization in Engineering and Applied Science in “Programming Languages and Systems” from UCLA.
Robert had thought about a teaching career and taught various calculus and mathematics classes over the years at UCLA Extension, USC, and Loyola Marymount University, as well as tutoring students in math at Palms Middle School. He enjoyed writing and was often a club secretary or newsletter editor, and was an expert proofreader, always wanting things done properly. His files include many letters to bosses, companies, and elected officials about how things could be improved.
Tennis was a big part of Robert’s life. Starting in high school, he played regularly for over 60 years. For most of his life he was on the courts three or four times a week. After he “retired,” the days he chose to work at Aerospace were the days he had a game to play. He once said that his ambition was to be the world’s best 80-year-old tennis player. He wasn’t the best at 80, but he was still playing.
In their final years, Robert and Cynthia were staunch members of a local wine tasting group and the Heels & Souls Square Dance Club. Although plagued by the loss of grip in both hands, he managed Cynthia’s care after a stroke in 2012, and the move to Vintage Westwood Independent Living in April 2016. Since Cynthia’s passing in January 2017, Robert had been fighting the good fight against the Watermark eviction of the residents in his building. He passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. Robert is survived by two daughters, Lucinda Mercer and Annette Mercer, and four grand children.
Donations in his memory can be made to
KCRW Foundation – https://join.kcrw.com/
UCLA Foundation – https://giving.ucla.edu
UC Berkeley Foundation – https://give.berkeley.edu