James W. Thatcher, a mathematician who developed the first screen reader for the visually impaired, and who also once built two houses in Garrison, died Dec. 7, 2019.
Jim was born in Schenectady in 1936 and lived there until he was 10. After World War II, he and his family moved to San Diego, California. He graduated from Pomona College with a degree in mathematics in 1958 and received one of the first PhDs in computer science from the University of Michigan in 1963.
Together with his thesis advisor, Jesse Wright, Jim joined the mathematical sciences department of IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, where he stayed until 1996. Jim was one of the founders of Mathematical Foundations of Computer Science, an annual conference which brought together theoretical computer scientists from western Europe and the U.S. with their counterparts in Eastern Europe.
Jim began moving away from the abstract and toward the practical when he and Wright, who was blind, started working on an “audio access system” for the IBM Personal Computer, a system for providing on-screen information to a blind user through synthesized voice. This work culminated in the development of one of the first screen readers for DOS in 1984-85, called IBM Screen Reader. He later led the development of IBM Screen Reader/2, the first screen reader for a graphical user interface on the PC. Jim was intimately involved in the development of IBM Home Page Reader, a talking web browser for the blind and visually impaired.
In 1996 Dr. Thatcher joined the IBM Accessibility Center in Austin, Texas, where he led the effort to include accessibility in the IBM development process, establishing IBM’s Accessibility Guidelines. In Austin, Jim became part of a very active accessibility community, which included the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Knowbility, a digital accessibility organization.
He retired from IBM in 2000, becoming an independent consultant and a passionate advocate for accessibility on all levels, from small nonprofit websites to large corporations. He was a teacher and mentor to many in his field, and his website at jimthatcher.com contains information for developers that has been preserved first by Digital Gap Initiative in Australia and now by Knowbility in Austin.
Jim was the lead author of Building Accessible Websites (2002) and Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance (2006). Among his many awards were the Distinguished Service Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 1994 and in 2011 a Lifetime Achievement Award from his accessibility peers.
Jim was equally passionate and thoughtful about his other interests. He was unfailingly supportive of his children. When he and his first wife, Susan Stocker Thatcher, separated in 1977, they rented an apartment and took turns living in the family house with their children, a more child-friendly system of custody.
He enjoyed the process of building and worked with his architect friend, Frank Dushin, to build two houses in Garrison, and two more in Texas. He was an attentive and supportive husband, helping his wife, Diana Seidel, with the mechanics of pottery— building kilns, shelves and worktables; helping to set up and break down at shows and always being encouraging of her work.
Jim was a political activist throughout his life. He marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, attended rallies and demonstrations for women’s rights and Black Lives Matter. He was a supporter and a fan of the arts and a lifelong bird watcher.
Jim is survived by his ex-wife, Susan, and their children, Ann Gornik, Rebecca Thatcher Murcia and Mark Thatcher; by his wife, Diana and their son, Anthony Thatcher; and by grandchildren Kiya and Abram Gornik and Gabriel and Mario Murcia.
A memorial is being planned for Jan. 18. Anyone interested in attending should email Diana at [email protected]. Memorial donations may be made to Knowbility’s Jim Thatcher Fund, a scholarship award program for the AccessU training to continue Jim’s contribution to digital accessibility teaching and learning. See knowbility.org/donate.
In 1967 or so, we bought from Mrs. Aileen Webb acreage on South Mountain Pass directly across the dirt road from Jim and Susie Thatcher’s new house. Mrs. Webb had encumbered her acreage with the burdens and benefits of an owners’ association. Our family met Jim’s family through this association, exposing us immediately to his outgoing and energetic spirit. His interest in our building plans was consuming. We had an architect. He produced the builder, Bob Kissinger, who had just finished constructing Jim’s house.
Jim’s praise for Bob was well-founded. When we admired Jim’s fireplace, he laid out in detail how to achieve such effects: Use squared-cornered stones from the forest so the weathered patina of centuries would be preserved; to further enhance the stones, recess the cement between them and add carbon-black for contrast. Jim’s instinct always bent toward sharing his knowledge, not to feed his ego but to help his friends.
Jim surprised me on my 40th birthday in 1974 with a large party of my friends and relatives at his house. His stealth and crafty planning worked to make the surprise complete. He liked throwing parties, but always with creative flare and often a twist. His capture-the-flag events were memorable examples.
These were the Vietnam War years, and Jim’s opposition to that debacle was intense, long-lasting and effective. He was a leader in the Concerned Democrats of Putnam County, which mounted an alternative slate of Democrats to the regular Party’s candidates, all of whom supported the War. With legal help from his neighbor and my law firm partner, Hugh Rowland, victory was achieved for the whole slate, including John Dow, who became our local Congressman for the 27th CD in 1964 and was one of only seven Congressmen to vote against the war that year. Early days.
At some point in that endless war, the Concerned Democrats joined an opposition march on Washington. We came up with ideas to finance the trip. I had a “campaign” button made up. It said “Disengage Now.” We sold the button for a dollar. Jim took the design and made T-shirts with those words stenciled on the front. We sold the tee-shirts for a few dollars. (Jim gave me the first “proof” of the shirt design, which I still have framed on the wall.) Jim also made a large flag using the same design. Somehow, he managed to run that flag up a pole at the Washington Monument and keep it waving there for part of the day. (I have a picture to prove his feat.)
Jim’s legacy on South Mountain Pass goes far beyond the two beautiful houses he built with the help of Frank Dushin and Bob Kissinger. It resides happily in the minds of all those, like the Longstreths, who remember him as the kind of friend who expanded the reach of that word well beyond the ordinary. Who remember him in terms identical to the beguiling line Walt Whitman used to describe himself: “I am large. I contain multitudes.” And who will treasure those memories as long as the meaning of friendship holds sway in their minds.