Neil R. MacFarlane, 1936-1974


Neil MacFarlane was a brilliant man and the most spirited and inspiring of mentors. He was my AP Physics and Computer Science teacher in 1972-73 at the Overseas School of Rome (now called American Overseas School of Rome, AOSR). He was adored by his students, and that year the year book was dedicated to him (dedication page shown on the left.)

I took every class he taught. He would help me with my homework on his breaks between sets at the Red Banjo, a nightclub in downtown Rome with a New Orleans atmosphere where by night he played piano. We fondly called it the Red Bunghole. Italy has no drinking age laws so we kids were allowed to hang out there. Neil had shellacked the felt hammers in the piano to give it a honky-tonk sound. That's him in the red shirt.

Neil gave me my career. He taught me Fortran. I and classmates ran our programs in the SIED computer center that belonged to Mobil Oil. (Access was thanks to Mike Selig's Dad.)

He also served as faculty sponsor for the Rome Rocketry Club. We did some rudimentary mathematical simulations (in Fortran, of course) with physical parameters of our rocket designs (especially the coefficient of drag, of whose calculation we were especially proud) entered on punched cards, and then tested them in the field. Simulation and reality rarely matched. No matter what our programs said the rockets should do, they did what they wanted, but it was an adventure.

Neil inspired my life's work. He took me with him to my first technical conference, on Information Theory, in Tel Aviv, in 1973. I went on to get two degrees in computing (UCSC and UCSF) and worked for a long list of Silicon Valley and Fortune 100 companies as well as founding a couple of my own. None of this would have grown without the seed that Neil planted.

He rode his bike fearlessly in Rome traffic, even on the "blood alley" stretch of Via Cassia en route to (A)OSR. Ironically, it wasn't the traffic that did him in, it was the rigors of the double life (teacher by day, musician by night) he lead. One day in 1974 while he was riding his bike, his heart simply quit. It was a huge loss to so many of us who knew and admired him. I went to his funeral in Seattle in 1974, met his Mom and paid sad last respects. Grazie di tutto, caro maestro.


Photo courtesy Jaime Clay


A eulogy by Kevan Kristjansen

Even as a boy, Neil had a remarkable musical career.


Bob Stratton, one of Neil's boyhood buddies, found us on the Web and writes:

Thank you for posting the info about Neil. I was thinking about Neil the other day and went online to see what I might find.

In 1947 my family moved to Juneau, AK and Neil and I were in 6th grade there together. We became best friends. I would go over to his house after school and we would do experiments with his chemistry set. He already knew lots more science than I did but he got me interested in chemistry.

I eventually went on to get a PhD in physical chemistry, did basic research on polymers at Mobil Chemical Company for six years and then taught and did research for 25 years at a private specialized graduate school for the paper industry.

As I am sure you know, Neil had a fantastic imagination. One of our assignments in school was to write a fiction story. While I and the rest of the class did a one or two pager, Neilā wrote a story that was exciting and went on for 10 pages or more.

Even in 6th grade he was musically talented. I think he may have been taking piano lessons then, but I'm not sure. He and I were in the high school band and we decided to do a musical arrangement of 'Pop goes the Weasel' for sousaphone (Neil) and clarinet (me). We added syncopation and long slurs but the pinnacle was the 'pop' chord. Neil let loose a tremendous oompf while I got off a terrible screech. We decided we needed to practice the piece to perfect it so we came in before school started and proceeded to play it over and over again. After about 10 minutes of this, the band director whose office was next door to the practice room came over and told us to knock it off. I'm glad to hear that didn't stifle Neil's love of music.

When summer came, we went to an antique store, bought a gold pan for 50 cents, and began to pan for gold in Gold Creek which runs out of the mountains behind Juneau and was the reason Juneau was founded. We were never very successful but had a lot of fun exploring up and down the creek.

Unfortunately, at the end of summer Neil and his Mom moved to the Seattle area and I never saw him again. We corresponded a few times but did not keep it up. Probably my fault as I got more interested in sports and girls.

In the late 70s I was in Seattle at a scientific conference, looked his name up in the phone book and gave him a call. A guy answered at his house and said that Neil had passed away.

I also found online that Neil had gotten a degree in physics at MIT, but could not find an obituary or any other info about him except for your article. I especially liked the photo you posted of him. It shows his buoyancy and enthusiasm for life that I remember so well.

I would greatly appreciate it if you could tell me something about how Neil died and anything else about his life that you can remember. I also enjoyed reading your autobiography complete and interspersed with pictures.

Bob Stratton


Tom Rezucha, another of Neil's students, found us on the Web and writes:

Hi Dan,

My dad moved us to Rome in 1974. It was my senior year of high school.

One night I was at the Red Banjo and the music started and there was Neil MacFarlane playing ragtime piano.

I ordered him a beer and he visited our table during his break. I asked him how long he had been playing the ragtime piano. He said just a few weeks. I was amazed and I asked him how he learned and he said he ran all the songs he wanted to play through the computer (in 1974). He said he only needed to learn seven chords. I was intrigued and asked if I could attend his class.

He was _so_ much fun and so enthusiastic (I can still recite the Greek alphabet that we used to do in class) and I learned Fortran from him as you did, too.

I went on to get a BS in computer science and I was going to return to Rome to visit him and say 'thank you' when I learned that he had died.

He was such a genuine spirit. Today I remarked to a friend that my mentor, Neil, made the fellow with white hair in 'Back to the Future' seem tame, in such a good way.

That picture that you found of him shows that interest and enthusiasm that he had when engaging with others and it brought tears to my eyes, even after 44 years.

Thank you for writing such a heartwarming tribute to him.

All the best,


Yet another reverent student of Neil's, David Block, found us on the web in September, 2019, and writes:

This is very touching. I was at AOSR for just one year, 1972-73, but to this day I find myself telling people about this Physics teacher I had in Rome, the Computer Science and Rocket Clubs, walking into his classroom one day and seeing him with a big ass grin on his face holding a long fluorescent bulb in the middle with one hand and the tube glowing brightly thanks to the Tesla Coil apparatus he had just made which included a huge capacitor he had hand-made of layers of glass foil and beeswax.

Another time, he told our class how movie theaters used to burn down when the projector failed and the carbon arc used to illuminate the film would ignite the cellulose nitrate film. This was a setup for his demonstration using an old film made of CN, from which he took a short length, made a small coil with the middle pulled out and wrapped in foil. He then proceeded to ignite it. The smoke alarm went off and the school was partially evacuated.

Like others, I would occasionally go to the RB if I was stuck on a homework problem. During a break, he would come over and help.

I was already excited about computers and electronics before my year in Rome, but Neil was one of my mentors that I'll never forget.


Dan's personal home page