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Columnists

Big Blue: From Punch-card Tabulators to the Cloud    

June 21, 2022

Before launching into our interview, I sprung a little pop quiz on Paul Kruse. I discovered it online. Question: Which computer company did not start in a garage? The list had four names: Apple, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and IBM. Naturally, I expected the right response from a guy who spent 30 years in the employ of IBM, aka ‘Big Blue.’

But, true to form, Kruse offered a minor correction. “Technically, Microsoft is not a computer company. When they started, they were strictly a software company.” His words had street cred. I’m now a disciple.

I bumped into Kruse after my laptop evidently didn’t adjust well to the Front Range and its mile-high locale. But, if truth be told, it was more about my phobia of all things technical.

Kruse, 78, is a native of Rockford, IL, 100 miles north of Chicago, near the Wisconsin border. His parents were both high-school dropouts. “There wasn’t a whole lot of money.” His father did electrical wiring and machine-shop work; his mom eventually scraped enough money together to open her own beauty shop.

Following his four-year service in the Air Force, Kruse got word that IBM was hiring. That sparked curiosity.  “IBM classes taught you how computers really worked. Nowadays, they’re teaching the repair people how to fix them – not how they work.”

As Kruse approached retirement from IBM, “it became more important for me to get out”  of Poughkeepsie, NY, where he was assigned. The city, nestled in the Hudson River Valley, was the birthplace of the first commercial computer, the Defense Calculator. Kruse was acquainted with Colorado, having visited his aunt and uncle in their home in Colorado Springs.  With their son and daughter in tow, the family settled in the Centennial State.

But Kruse wasn’t interested in becoming stationary. “I was aware that people sit on their front porch and watch the world go by,” and die within a few years, he said. So, to stay in the game, Kruse learned about free programs offered at the Longmont Senior center through Senior Net, an international organization that teaches seniors basic computer skills. “Front Range Community College gave us a classroom to use.” With years of hosting presentations for IBM under his belt, lecturing before a group of people was easy. Since the pandemic, classes are held via Zoom. Drop-in help is also available. There’s also a one-one-one tutorial on basic cell phone usage.

Kruse got another gig, one that paid. For six years, he installed laptops in every Longmont police car. Prior to the introduction of computers in police vehicles, he said, officers had to communicate with dispatchers over the radio. With computers, “the younger officers ate this right up. The older guys were reluctant to change.”  He said he still gets questions from a new generation of computer specialists at the department.

The questions Kruse gets peppered with run wide and deep. People want to know why their files vanished; they may also come to Kruse for help with editing pictures and troubleshooting audio. “There’s also scammers now.”

As someone who knows how to dance through the digital landscape, Kruse takes nothing for granted. “Just when you think you know everything, another problem slaps you on the head.” The laptops we’re all familiar with, he added, “are disappearing already. Everyone’s using tablets now.”

Throughout our lively discussion, I took Kruse’s word for pretty much whatever he said. His folksiness, his easy essence, at once perfumes the room. Not unlike that of a doting grandfather, of which he is one. Of course, no one is right all the time, but Kruse may be the one who finally comes close.

In addition to his deep well of knowledge about mainframes and motherboards and supply chains and his long volunteer work operating the cameras during worship services at Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Niwot –  “I get to listen to the sermon twice” – Kruse knows where the fun is. “Have you heard about the frozen dead guy?” Wait. What? Did this have anything to do with the true story of baseball legend Ted Williams’s body after his death?

“In Nederland, west of Boulder. They have coffin races.”

Don’t kid yourself. We all have our phobias. Many involve the fear of Earthly death. But if the end game involves bumping into guys like Paul Kruse, bring on a motherboard overflowing with irrational, magnified fears.

 

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