A Legacy of Wisdom: The Dr. John Ehrman Interview, Part I

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series inspired by an interview with the late Dr. John Ehrman, conducted by Reg Harbeck at SHARE Atlanta in 2012. Learn more and read the introductory article on this series here.

Every once in a while we meet someone exemplary, who is passionate about their area of expertise and yet very humble in that passion. In our IBM mainframe world, one of those people was the late Dr. John Ehrman.

John was known as the father of the High Level Assembler, a fond nickname that was the culmination of years of working with the early iterations of IBM System/360 and successor assemblers, noting its deficiencies, and coming up with modifications that made it a lot easier for users to be productive. He loved sharing his wisdom with others so they would learn and also spread their knowledge. His volunteering for SHARE for 50 years was the perfect example of this. Yet he never asked for recognition and was always modest when showered with well-deserved accolades. These characteristics are why the SHARE John. R. Ehrman Award for Sustained Excellence in Technical Education was named after him.

I became acquainted with Dr. Ehrman in the mid-1990s through the IBM assembler mailing list. We corresponded on- and off-list for many years. We first met in person in 2004, when I had an interview for a position at Santa Teresa Labs, the same place he worked. I emailed Dr. Ehrman mentioning that I was going to be there, and asked if we could meet after my interview. He agreed and afterward I was escorted to his work area. After we chatted, he asked if I’d like to see the machine room, located in the basement of the same building. Of course I said yes. We went down and I was amazed; it was the largest machine room I’d ever seen.

We parted and I went home, not meeting him in person again until almost a decade later, when he came to see me present at SHARE. His presence (along with the presence of many others, who came just to see me and meet me in person) humbled me, and also confirmed my decision almost 30 years earlier to enter this industry.

Participating in this series and reflecting on Reg Harbeck’s interview at SHARE Atlanta in 2012 reminds me so much of my departed friend. He had so many stories to tell, and he loved telling them. I must thank Reg for interviewing him, allowing many to share “hearing” what he had to say. In these interview excerpts, you will read about not just his history with improving the assembler, but also the parallel era of the introduction and growth of the System/360 and successors, and the history of SHARE. When you realize that his involvement with SHARE spanned 50 years, and started before SHARE’s 10th birthday, you will understand how intertwined the history of SHARE and John’s career were.  You may even find some small regrets; for example, restructuring the conditional assembler syntax, which, in retrospect, he felt was a hodgepodge. He had ideas of replacing it with a Rexx-like or PL/I-precompiler-like facility.

Thank you, good friend John. You were certainly one of a kind.

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