The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Tom Yates Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Mike Dicianna.

February 10, 2016


Thomas Leyba Yates was born in Seattle, Washington in 1927, the son of a travelling salesman. Yates' family remained in the Seattle area until the beginning of Tom's junior high school years, at which point they moved to Oakland, California. It was there that Yates completed high school, graduating in 1944. Following a single term of study at the University of California at Berkeley, Yates enlisted in the Navy, where he served as an electronic technician at the conclusion of World War II.

Following his discharge from the service, Yates enrolled at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where he majored in Mathematics. After completing his bachelor's degree in 1950, Yates spent an additional year at Willamette in pursuit of a teaching credential. From there, he worked for three months as a civil servant at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, and for another year as a substitute teacher in the Oakland school district.

In 1952, following a final term at Willamette, Yates accepted a position as a statistician for the Oregon Highway Department. During this time, Yates discovered a love for the computing technologies of that era, and in 1956 he moved back to Seattle to work as a programmer for Boeing, where he assisted with the design of new airplane models. Yates returned to Oregon a year and a half later, when the Highway Department recruited him to fill the newly created position of Electronic Data Processing programmer. In this, Yates become one of the very first people to be hired as a computer programmer by the state of Oregon. He continued to work for the state in various capacities for about five years, providing support for the Department of Motor Vehicles as well as the state's Finance and Administration department.

In December 1962, Yates accepted a position as director of the Statistics department computer lab at Oregon State University. In this role, Yates primarily oversaw the administrative functioning of the center while also exploring ways in which computers might be used on campus for services beyond scholarly research. One major achievement that Yates helped to bring about was the automation of the class registration process, which came to pass in the late 1960s.

Following a one-year sabbatical at the Western Australia Institute of Technology, Yates returned to OSU in 1976 and was named director of the OSU Computer Center, a position that he held until his retirement from the university in 1985. As director, Yates oversaw a major expansion of the computing infrastructure on campus, including widespread adoption of personal computers, massive hiring of support staff, and frequent updates of hardware and software. Following his retirement from OSU, Yates engaged in private consulting work and also volunteered with Project Vote Smart, a non-profit political information service then based on the Oregon State campus.