Walt's Way Too Complicated Biography

In the Beginning

I grew up in Kansas City, North, just up the bluff from the Missouri River and North Kansas City. Our small home had two bedrooms until my parents added a master bedroom in the back. There was no air conditioning until years after I went to college. We had a large patio and bigger yard out back. Our neighborhood was semi-rural, homes on acre plots around us with lots of empty fields further away, a nearby cattle operation, and a neighbor down the road that had horses.

My earliest memories are of our collie, which was sick. After the collie we got two black and white cats. Another early memory of mine is playing in the dirt in the back yard with my sister, who picked up a brick and slammed me across the head. Maybe that is why we didn't get along until our college years.

My father, Frank, had grown up in Garden City, Michigan, near Detroit. His father worked in the Ford plant. He had two brothers, Virgil and Richard. Virgil moved to Southern California and was Sheriff of Orange County when I was young. Later there was a scandal and he turned to private detective work, passed the bar exam, and eventually became a Juvenile Court judge. Richard stayed in the family home and raised four kids. He was a truck driver and raced on dirt tracks too.

Dad worked at the Trans World Airlines training center in downtown Kansas City. He maintained the flight simulators used to train pilots. As a result, our family got flight privileges on standby and we traveled extensively. My parents also liked taking car trips. Since they smoked and our cars did not have air conditioning, my sister and I in the back of the car were quite prone to "carsickness".

My mother, Jody, was born in Kansas City. She was introduced to Frank by mutual friends when he was a student after WWII at a school in Kansas City, and she was a student at the Nelson Museum of Art. I think they met at a hockey game or a wrestling match. They got married, moved to Washington, D.C. for my Dad's schooling, then came back to Kansas City where Dad joined TWA.

My grandmother and aunt on my mother's side moved next door when I was really young. We had dinner together on holidays and Aunt Lee spoiled both of us kids at Christmas. The short time my mother worked, I went to their house after school until Mom returned from work. Believe it or not, I was never driven or bussed to the elementary school, which was a half mile from our house.

Bullies to the Left, Bullies to the Right

Elemantary school was a challenge. I was a challenge for the teachers, and the bullies were a challenge for me. I was almost as tall as my teacher in the first grade, taller than the football-hero principal by the sixth grade. So many parents and their kids thought I was held back and somewhat retarded. In those years, that meant getting beat up on a regular basis by older kids on the playground. Even the social skills from Cub Scouts didn't help. But my parents eventually put me in self defense/Judo classes, which were great. I never had to defend myself again after starting to learn martial arts, and I learned some discipline and skill. I also got to help teach a women's self defense class, which was fun for them and me.

Before I was born, my Dad took an assignment at TWA to go to Ethiopia and help start Ethiopian Airlines. My sister was born in Addis Abbaba and had dual citizenship. My parents decided to take us kids back to the places they had seen when I was in sixth grade. We went to Nairobi, Cairo, Addis Abbaba, and Rome on a two week trip. It was a fantastic adventure for two kids. My parents really instilled a love of travel.

The Nerd Club

The years of Junior High School were different in many ways. One of the teachers ran a Science Club before school, which allowed the nerds in school to find each other. Many of us were close friends through High School and stayed in touch while in college. I was into model rocketry, so of course I started a model rocket club. That was very popular, we had local adult radio control clubs doing demonstration flights, besides the rocket launches.

I had been in the elementary school "band", playing trombone. It was really for extreme beginners and very small. In Junior High there was a real band and an orchestra. The "jazz band" director gave us cool music and solos. We eventually added an electric guitar!

The Agony of the Crash

I was very comfortable and happy in Junior High, moving on up to High School was challenging again. There were a lot more students, a lot more choices for classes and activities. I got into Marching Band, but got so busy in my Senior Year I had to leave that behind.

By December of my freshman year, I was a full Nerd, reading up to ten books a week. Dad was usually the one to run me out to the library to exchange one batch of books for another. One rainy night in that December, our family's life changed drastically. A drunk driver in a pickup truck crossed into our lane and smashed the left side of our small car. The left side of my father's body was shattered: face, left arm, ribs, hip bone and socket, left leg, foot. He was in surgery for several weeks. I was lucky and checked out of the hospital after a night's obervation.

The surgeons managed to repair quite a bit of the damage to my father. But they also gave him a staph infection in his hip that prevented hip socket replacement and they drained our insurance and family savings. He was eventually moved to the state hospital at St. Joseph, which had more mental patients than medical patients. They also didn't do rehabilitation, so my dad stayed bedridden for months. Eventually Mom got the ear of a Senator and got Dad admitted to a Veterans Administration hospital in Kansas City. About a year after the accident, my Dad was released from rehab and came home.

My Dad is the toughest person I'll ever know. His left leg had no connection to a hip socket, it was 6 inches shorter than his right leg. Although he had to hobble with a cane and a padded shoe, he never used a wheelchair after rehab. He went back to work at TWA and retired early years later. He did yard work until his final couple of years.

My parents still managed to send my sister to college, where she got a degree in Biochemistry. And a few years later, they put me through college to get my Bachelors degree. But I am getting ahead of the story.

The Triumph of the Nerds

I was a member of a very solid Nerd Club in High School. At least a dozen strong, with a mix of boys and girls, we got into all sorts of things and studied very hard. I was even President of the Chess Club one year. In our Senior year, we had the most amazing Physics class. The teacher used a college level text, which required that he start by teaching us calculus, a math class not available on the school's class schedule.

I started coming to the school library about 6 in the morning to study for Physics. Soon there was a study group of up to a dozen making sure we understood the day's assignments and anything else that needed clearing up. That early morning group really made the last year of High School a very special time.

That year was special for another reason. I had always wanted to compete in the Kansas City Science Fair. I even worked with a teacher in Junior High to see what to do. My Senior year was my final chance, so I checked with the Physics instructor, John Craig. It turned out that nobody had competed from North Kansas City High School, so the teachers didn't know what to do! He told me that he would sponser me if I filled out the paperwork and took care of the details.

I did a project on how to optimize aircraft propellers, using indoor model aircraft. My parents had no clue what I was doing. I built a display with the three models used in the experiments, plus the usual backdrop describing the mathematics and the testing. It was fun talking to the judges and wrapping up a long day at the Science Fair. I was very happy to have achieved my dream while I waited for my parents to pick me up at the end of the day. An adult in a suit dropped by and chatted, later I would get a formal introduction to the guy in charge of the Kansas City Science Fair.

The Science Fair awards ceremony was held while my Dad was at work, so John Craig gave me a ride. As it turned out, several organizations liked my project and I got about 30 awards. They decided to set a chair up on stage for me after the first ten awards so I didn't have to make more trips to my seat with the audience. I also got First Place and a trip to the International Science Fair. It was a great trip, although the International Science Fair was held at Notre Dame that year instead of overseas.

My direction was set for an engineering college. I attended a Summer camp for Engineering and Programming along with many of my nerd friends from High School. I was also selected to attend Missouri Boy's State (thanks to Jeff Horn's generosity). The rest of the summer I spent working 50 hours a week doing groundkeeping at World's of Fun.

College Reality

Since our family was not well off, I decided to get a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Missouri at Rolla, now the Missouri University of Science and Engineering. Rolla is a small school, with about 7,000 students at the time. I called it an "engineering monastary" as the ratio of men to women was about 16 to 1. So while I learned a lot of engineering, I didn't exactly learn about social skills and people.

It was a wonderful experience, although stressful at times. A counselor warned me first thing that students at Rolla wash out fast. "You may have been hot in high school, but you are with the best of the best here. Most can't make it to their degree. Prepare to work hard." I was convinced to pledge a fraternity, which was a big mistake. I stuck with it for two long weeks before going to solo off-campus housing (a crappy basement apartment that cost $50 a month).

That wasn't my worst mistake. I was at college to learn engineering and I had tested out of most of the liberal art class requirements (two full semesters worth of courses). Instead of trying to graduate in three years, I filled up the time with graduate level courses. Not only did that bring down my GPA, I could not take those courses for graduate school credit later.

Graduate School

Although I had a job offer from Boeing Military Airplane Company in Wichita, I decided to go to graduate school. This is where taking graduate courses as an undergraduate really hurt. I was very fortunate to get a research fellowship on a NASA grant, which allowed me to run the large wind tunnel at school, as well as do upgrades to the drive system, flow conditioning, and stripping and painting the entire thing in the heat of Summer.

At various times I worked three jobs at once to afford school, my car, and housing. I decided if I was working so hard, I'd do some fun stuff. So I signed up for Marching Band and a piano course as well. Both of those things were well worth it. I made a lot of new friends in band and became a lifetime member of Kappa Kappa Psi, the college band fraternity.

I took graduate courses full time (including the Summer) for five semesters. Then I finally fulfilled my committment to work at Boeing Military Company in Wichita.

Trapped in Wichita

I spend eight long years in Wichita. There were many high points. I got my pilot's license and first airplane. I learned a lot at Boeing and became skilled at aerodynamics, aircraft stability and control, and advanced design. I developed good analytic skills with computer programming, developing simulations for B-52 and KC-135 aircraft. I wrote the training manual for KC-135 engine out control. I also finished a rather thick thesis and got my MS in Aerospace Engineering. I started one of the early personal computer clubs that grew to over 500 members.

But personally and professionally, Wichita was a dead end. It was a very bad time in a close personal relationship. It was the beginning of the decline at Boeing there, as the corporate office decided to shut down the engineering programs and sell off the manufacturing lines (shortly after I left). I knew I would never get experience on a real aircraft project in Wichita.

Escape to Fort Worth

So I interviewed some other aircraft companies. I interviewed Northrop in California, who didn't think I was worth paying the California equivalent of my Wichita salary. I interviewed General Dynamics in Fort Worth, who provided the best interview experience ever (and I have done that at least 30 times since then). GD also gave me the most mysterious interview ever. I met with the hirig manager in a tiny office with the door closed. We chatted about my work experience until I sensed the interview was over.

"So what is your project", I asked. "Can't say.", he said. "Is it an airplane?", I said. "Can't say.", he said. This went on for awhile. Finally I asked, "Would you hire me?" "I like you", he said.

A few months later, I was in Fort Worth, waiting for my security clearance on the mystery project. Although it was a black project of utmost secrecy when I started, it was an expensive project in major trouble. Congressional support was required to bail it out. Over a few short months, the public heard about the Navy's A-12 Avenger II stealth attack aircraft. We called it "The Flying Dorito" because of the shape of the flying wing.

Even though the project was out in the open, Congress still balked at its original $4 billion price tag, much less what would be needed to complete it. The writing was on the wall. I contacted the home group manager and transferred out. I was put in charge of the group's research budget and reporting, which was good work.

A few months later, on Black Tuesday, Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense, cancelled the A-12 project. Over 6000 engineers were out on the street in Fort Worth and Saint Louis (McDonnell Douglas was a partner on the aircraft). Lots of my friends were affected. And it was clear that GD Fort Worth would soon be on the block (eventually sold to Lockheed).

Time to look for another project.

Escape to Savannah

Timing is everything. Perhaps I should have checked with people I knew at Boeing Seattle. But Gulfstream in Savannah, Georgia had just committed to developing the large, high performance Gulfstream V business jet. I interviewed and moved to Savannah, convinced that I would finally get to work on a viable new aircraft design. I was in charge of three engineers and worked hard coordinating the team, putting together software for flight dynamics predictions.

Perhaps I should have spent more time on office politics. Gulfstream went through waves of layoffs and hiring during the early phases of the project, they couldn't get on stable funding. Working hard did not help me see that there were too many managers that wanted less competition on the next layoff cycle. So I was surprised to be shown the door on the very last few days of the last wave of layoffs.

I started working hard with various companies and every friend in the business to get an interview with an aerospace firm. But the whole industry was in the dumper. Lockheed, General Dynanics, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and others were selling off, buying out, collapsing. Heck, there were probably A-12 engineers still trying to get back into the industry. I was unemployed for a year.

I finally got a position as a Junior Programmer at the Chatham County School Board. While this was better than flipping burgers, it really didn't pay much more. But it was good experience and a resume builder. This was the start of my second career as a programmer.

Back to D/FW

Savannah is an extremely small job market. There really weren't many software jobs in the region to trade up on experience and salary. A friend with connections to Tandy/Radio Shack suggested that I give them a try. So I flew to Fort Worth, made an appointment with the CIO, and explained to him that Radio Shack needed to hire me. He accepted my offer.

Radio Shack was an excruciating place to work. My manager had conquered bone cancer before I arrived, then a couple of months later it came back with a vengeance. The other managers were just plain crazy or scared to death of the CEO. I worked on some interesting projects and checked the job market.

Eventually I got into consulting work, which before 2000 was a golden era where the customer listened to your advice and you just made things happen. I made a lot more money than I had in my previous career. I did two "tours" back with Lockheed in Fort Worth to maintain and enhance their engineering/simulation software library that evolved from a concept proof that I created before leaving General Dynamics. When the consulting business went away, I hired on with Lennox to lead a team to rescue DaveNet, their dealer website.

Over the years I'd lived in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I had been a member of an unusual social club called the Tall Texans of Dallas. They were one of a network of tall clubs all over the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. The Dallas club always had something going on. I served in various officer positions in the club and eventually became President.

True Love

During my term as President with the Tall Texans, I was obligated to attend nearly every work and social function of the club. Lisa showed up at a bowling night, where all sorts of oddness was going on. We spent some time talking, and she became a member and stuck with the club.

Lisa remembers things much better than I do, and that was a particularly hectic time for me. If you want details of that time, talk to her. We started dating and I finally discovered the person I was meant to be with. We got married in 2004. It has been a wonderful adventure since then, with a lot of challenges and a lot of big changes for both of us.

Home Sweet Home, Tennessee

Lisa and I moved from the Dallas area to the Oak Ridge, Tennessee area in 2007. Although Lisa had been in Dallas since the age of 10, mostly, she really wanted to move and so did I. D/FW is a big area, crowded with about 10 million people and horrendous traffic, with really nasty hot weather and pollution. The positives were overwhelmed by the problems with Dallas at that stage of our lives.

We moved to Tennessee to a ridge North of Knoxville and East of Oak Ridge. There is a lot less stress, a lower cost of living, no pollution, wonderful outdoor recreation, nearby tourist traps too, and on and on. If you are curious, check out the area on the Internet.

If you would like to stay in touch, you can find me on Facebook. I have omitted a book's worth of details from this biography. If I included the pictures, they would make up Volume 2. I was very reluctant to write this, but I keep thinking how great it would be if my Dad had written about his life before he passed away. Or my sister, who passed away in 1991. Maybe this will be interesting to someone. And perhaps you too, if you read this far.