Ken Bell: Friend and Mentor

December 9, 2018

I met Ken Bell in December 1982 at the Berkeley, IL  Train Depot on a cold snowy day. I was waiting to catch a train that morning for downtown Chicago. Ken was standing with a group of older men almost out of hearing range.

He was telling his friends about a computer issue he was having with his Apple II+ computer running Visicalc and running out of columns to use in that spreadsheet program. I stepped over the the group and introduced myself.

I was on my way to downtown because I was working at Omega MicroWare, Inc., a national software distribution company as the Customer Support Manager. We sold a 128K hardware board along with Visicalc add-on software to solve problems like Ken was talking about. I invited him to come to our office above Union Station and I would be happy to demo the combo products. I believe he showed up the next day.

He was the Treasurer for Reinsurance Company of America and had a small accounting staff working under him in a larger company of other related insurance companies. They used Visicalc to produce voluminous reports on a weekly basis and Visicalc’s limitations was causing problems in creating those reports.

After my demo, Ken purchased two 128K boards and two software licenses from my office and went back to work. Using the Omega MicroWare products he removed the limitations he and his staff faced and immediately became a very happy customer.

A couple days later I saw him again at the train station and asked to sit with his associates on the way downtown. I was a great discussion with those three much older men as we introduced ourselves and they asked me about my computer work. It was the beginning of a long habit of riding the train with them in the morning over the next several years.

In time, Ken approached me for some computer consulting to keep his computers running well. I was also selling 5.25-inch software disks in my own software consulting business and Ken would purchase about 50 of those a month for the next year or two.

By the spring of 1984 in addition to teaching adult education classes at Triton College, I was working three days a week with Ken. In that capacity I was earning about what I had 3 years earlier as a machinist without overtime a week. My other consulting work outside of helping Ken brought in additional income.

Ken and I used to talk about other solutions he might want to have me design and from those talks he purchased an Apple III, more disks, and a 5Mb external hard drive. He purchased some relational database software for the Apple II+ and that was my first exposure to designing relational databases.

That Apple III database software had severe limitations. I continued providing other operational support solutions to the company that expedited Ken’s departmental work. In one time-reduction situation, I delivered software programming that took a manual task that was 3-days long down to 25 minutes complete. The VP of the company called me into his office to thank me for that activity.

Others in the company began to notice and introduced themselves to me. I was able to raise my hourly rate and earning enough money to move on from my teaching career to full-time consulting to more customers.

Fortunately, the Mac computers available then had better database software but Ken could not justify their expense to the company. That would change by the autumn of 1985 arrived. That timing brought about the next phase of my computer consulting and expanding database software development opportunities.

The CEO of Ken’s parent company stopped by one night while I was working late at Ken’s office to talk with me. I did not know who he was as we rarely closed paths. We spoke about about an hour about my database work and then he departed. I left soon afterwards to go home myself, not thinking much more about that conversation.

The next morning upon arriving at Ken’s office, Ken summoned me into his private office and showed me a memo from the CEO. Both Ken and I were to attend a meeting in the CEO’s office along with other management and the IT department members in about 30-minutes! Ken wanted to know what the CEO and I had spoken about. 🙂

To keep this story going at a faster pace, the meeting was for the CEO’s pet project for his firm. It was decided that both I and the IT Department would submit our own separate proposals to the CEO the subsequent week on that pet project and the winner would get to perform the work with a budget.

This was huge step for me. I had not prepared a budget or work proposal so extensive before. Ken told me he had over twenty-five years experience in that capacity and we would work together it. We had a busy and fruitful week of getting to know each other mush better then.

When the subsequent CEO decision was determined, the proposal Ken and I submitted won the decision. The company purchased two Mac 512K computers, a new multi-user hierarchical database software, and a LaserWriter printer. By the way, I would be working from that point on full-time consulting at $1,000 a week. The date was November 18, 1985.

I became immersed in office politics and that was a problem. In time I learned some of the ways to navigate corporate politics. Initially I faced some of the employees that resent my consulting opportunities. This tuned out to be common in the aisle 1980’s as computer technology started to make in-roads into safe-harbor IT environments. As time went by, some of those same employees became some of my strongest supporters as I taught them how to use Excel and the relational database software. Even the Underwriting VP caught the wave. It was part of my evolving professional philosophy about working smarter not harder.

Ken and I worked together inside and outside his company. After Ken retired in late 1987, I went to work directly as an employee for that CEO mentioned earlier. That was a tense time for the highest level of politics in that company. There should be “boot camps” for positions that require working directly with CEO’s, especially when live ammunition is in-coming in those situations. 🙂

In April 1988 I left that company and returned to working for myself. In the autumn of 1989 I went to work in downtown Chicago for a Global Management Consulting firm at their Global Headquarters. The office politics there was magnitudes more intensive than at Ken’s company. It was a new growth phase for me in many ways. It tuned out to be just what I needed, although I did not recognize that at the time.

Ken used to call me with Mac questions and advice or just to catch-up. After Sherry and I moved to San Diego those calls and communications decreased. Sherry and I visited Ken and his wife a few times on our trips to Chicago. We always enjoyed those times.

Kenstayed busy in his church activities and passed away in his sleep on October 27, 2018 at age 93 according to a recent letter received from his daughter.

Ken helped a lot of people in life. He helped me and my wife. I benefited greatly from his keen wisdom and insights. We had a wonderful run together through our mutual workplace in the 1980’s. He always appreciated the relationship. That was how Ken felt for all he helped. Kindness and trust was his guiding lights of life.

Rest in peace, Ken. You are missed.

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About Don Larson

Using computer technology since June 1980.
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