Last night I watched the Katie Couric interview with Michael J. Fox on the CBS Evening News. I don’t watch CBS by choice. I would rather watch one of the other networks for news, but that is the only major US network news available to me. I still am not a Katie Couric fan and it appears that not many are, since CBS’s rating has dropped like a rock into third place. But I digress. Katie Couric is not the reason for writing this piece.
I have always been a Michael J. Fox fan. He appears to me to be one of those rare people that never let fame and fortune go to his head. When he developed Parkinson’s Disease and became an advocate for finding a cure for this disease my admiration for him continued to increase. When one is faced with adversity, it is very easy to feel that you are a victim and dwell in world of self-pity.
Instead, Michael has thrown himself into the hotly contested battle of legalizing stem cell research. Hitting the campaign trails is hard enough for one in perfect health. When one is battling Parkinson’s Disease, it is much harder. I was taken with his statement that he didn’t consider himself a victim, but he considered himself lucky. He said something to the effect that very few people are ever given the opportunity to make a difference during their life in the life of some one else. There is no question that he is making a difference.
This is not the first time I have been inspired by a person with adversities. I met another person early in my career with EDS that had a tremendous effect on me. This would have been in 1970/1971, I think. We both worked as programmers / analysts when computer technology was not nearly what it is today. Writing a program was done on a coding pad that was laid out for 80 column cards. Here is a PDF image of a Fortran pad. The pad was the same for assembly language for all practical purposes and that was the language Joe and I programmed in.
To write a computer program then required using a pencil to fill in the pad for keypunchers to punch it into cards. It was a laborious task to write programs at that time. First you wrote it carefully, so it could be read, on the pads. Then you turned your work in and waited for your cards to be punched. You would have to wait for hours if not the next day to get your stack of cards. Then you had to submit your cards to get a listing so you could check your program manually before submitting it for compilation. Computer time was a luxury and there was a lot of desk checking.
If you found initial problems you would use a 029 keypunch and correct the cards that were in error. You did this yourself as opposed to having a keypunch operator do it. A 100-line program consisted of 100 of these punched cards. Now my reason for going into the detail of this process is for you to understand the physical difficulty that programming involved at that time.
It was in this environment that I met Joe Rowe. When I first saw Joe, he was shuffling his deck of punched cards to find the card that needed to be corrected. He had to find it so he could remove it from the deck and replace it with the one he had just punched. If you have never seen a punched card, here is a photo.
I was probably very rude, because I could not keep from watching him go through this process. In his programming cubical, he had some paintings that he had done as well as photos he had taken at football games. His cubical was no different from any other cubicle, except for Joe.
So why was I staring? Well, Joe had been one of those unfortunate people that had been afflicted with polio. Joe slept at night in an iron lung and during the day was in a specially build motorized chair that he drive with a joystick. It also contained a breathing apparatus with a hose that he kept in his mouth that assisted him in breathing. He also had no use of his arms. He did everything with his feet. He drove his chair with his feet. He wrote out the program on the pads with his feet. He sorted through cards using his feet. He punched cards with his feet. Here is a photo of a 029-keypunch machine. Now mentally punch a card and remove it from the machine.
If you saw his work, you would have had no idea that he was challenged. I have to use the word challenged, because he was not handicapped. He was a most unusual individual. I never saw Joe when he was not in a good mood. I would go home at night feeling better about life because I had been able to spend some time with him. Anytime I felt myself slip into one of those periods of depression that we all get every now and then, I would just think of Joe and my problem would disappear. It was sort of like that old saying, “ I used to worry because I had no shoes, until I met a man that had no feet”.
There was literally nothing that Joe could not do. This was the age of Heathkit products and Joe built his share. If you have never soldered diodes, capacitors and other components on a motherboard, you can’t appreciate what he accomplished with his feet. I worked with Joe from the early 70s until I left EDS in 1999. Joe is one of those rare individuals that you meet that leaves his footprints in your memory.
Adversity is what we make of it. Some people conceive of reasons why they can’t succeed in life and others just find more things in life to succeed in. Joe falls into the later category. Joe, I am better for having met you.