The man who changed my world

It’s probably good to get this post out of the way early on, rather than it languishing in the todo pile of an abandoned blog (I’m realistic about the number of blogs that successfully carry on long-term, here’s hoping I buck the trend).

As I’ve touched on in my introductory post, my true introduction to using computers (as opposed to just being fascinated by them) came when a kindly teacher at my high school took it upon himself to teach Yr 7 (first year of high school) students about computers.

In 1980, Patrician Bros College, Blacktown had a grand total of 1 computer. It was a TRS-80 – if my memory serves me well, it was a Model 1 with expansion module, floppy drive/s, cassette recorder and matching monitor (and likely matching printer). Up to this point, only Yr 10 students were allowed use this machine, so we felt pretty special to have access to it in the group of 4 or 5 of us who had put our hands up in class.

As an aside, the school at that time had students from Yr 5 through to Yr 10, so the last 2 years of Australian primary school, and the first 4 years of high school. Other schools were responsible for finishing the schooling if students decided to go beyond the School Certificate in Yr 10 and attempt the Higher School Certificate in Yr 12. Never understood the reasoning for this fairly oddball (by most Australian standards) range of years – it got “corrected” in the 90s and now has students in Yrs 7-12, the more standard Australian high school range.

So our self-selected group learnt to program in BASIC on the school’s “Trash-80”, a name we soon learned, and one which I later learned was almost universally applied. But to us, it wasn’t really trash, it was magical, because we could make it do our bidding, and the magician to our apprentices was Robert “Bob” Bates, then known to us students only as the more formal “Mr Bates”.

Bob Bates was ambidextrous – he would turn from the chalkboard, place the chalk in the hand he hadn’t been using, expound on something, turn back to the board without putting the chalk back in the hand he’d been using, and pick up writing where he’d left off. Buggered if I could ever pick the transitions from right to left or back again when looking at the full board later on.

Mr Bates wasn’t “cool” and trying to be our best friend. He had a calm reserve I only ever saw broken once. He had a ready smile when talking about topics he was passionate about (primarily technology in those days). He cared deeply about his charges and took his responsibility in helping to positively shape our lives very seriously. His nickname amongst the students was “Bunge” (pronounced “bunj”). He drove a Leyland P76 (to date, the only person I have personally known to have done so [it was a distinctive and memorable car]).

Through those early lunchtime sessions in Yr 7, then as my Science teacher in Yrs 8 and 9, Bob Bates helped me learn a lot about computers (and science in general) and kept my passion for technology alive. I would have liked to have had him as my Science teacher for the whole of Yr 10, but the school had the “bright” idea of splitting each of the three terms in two and having the six separate Science topics taught by different teachers. Unsurprisingly, Bob Bates taught us the Technology curriculum.

Also unsurprisingly, he taught it in a way I think few other teachers in 1983 would have (I suspect, though, that readers of this post who were at school before the widespread use of computers but who got to use and learnt to love computers at that time, may have had their own “Mr Bates”).

He taught us not only about computers as they were then, but offered us glimpses of a time when devices would converge, robots would take over many of manufacturing’s less savoury tasks, and employees would move to become what would now be called “knowledge workers”.

It was our duty to ourselves, he taught us, to not rely on employers to keep us “trained up”, but to do that ourselves by pro-actively reading trade magazines in our chosen fields and undertaking training to keep us ahead of our peers. He saw that those workers who embraced change and lead it by being part of it would be the workers who would benefit the most from it and not be left behind.

I’ve not necessarily led the most successful career in computers, but I’ve been kept off the streets, have my own business, and continue to enjoy the constant evolution of my knowledge of computers. I feel I owe a great debt to Bob Bates for helping me get my head in the right space for keeping my skills and knowledge growing.

Epilogue: some years after leaving school, I learnt that Bob had moved to the States. I’ve tracked him down 3 times now (it’s not stalking, I promise!) – in some ways, it gets easier each time, as the Web makes such tasks straightforward if the “target” isn’t actively trying to hide. A few years back Bob was visiting Australia and we got together, giving us a chance to meet each other’s wives, which I was happy for (my wife got to meet a seminal figure in my life, his wife saw the continuing regard I held her husband in 20+ years later). He’s currently on the staff of a Bible College, and also (I’ve discovered since starting to write this post) sells his paintings online – I never knew he was so artistically inclined (or talented). Quite the polymath, is Mr Bates.

4 thoughts on “The man who changed my world”

  1. This has nothing to do with Apple II, but since you brought it up:

    From personal experience, ambidexterity on a chalkboard isn’t as impressive (I can do it) because the larger writing does not involve the fine motor skills required by writing on paper.

    Did you ever see him switch hands while writing on paper?

  2. Pretty sure I did – but it was 30 years ago! I won’t deny at least a small degree of hagiography, so it’s possible I overstated his powers 😉

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