Saturday, September 09, 2006

Requiem For A Baghead

In the darkest corners of human experience, you can still find a diamond-studded milk crate if you look hard enough.

On Friday, September 8th, as I returned to Boston from Minneapolis, I found out that a very dear friend of more than 20 years had met a tragic end in the Colorado mountains.

John Ponte was only 43 years old. Chances are, if you met John - even just once, he left you with a warm feeling, a laugh, or a good memory you hold even to this day.

I met John for the first time while I was in college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It was my second semester - the spring of 1985. I was taking several classes that required me to use centralized mainframe computing resources from the University Computing Center (the UCC, as it was called). This was the first time I ever used a "real computer". Computing at UMass in the mid-1980's meant that you probably used some kind of character-based terminal to connect to one of the Control Data Systems mainframes which took up much of the first floor of the Graduate Research Center low-rise building across from the research towers. You used the computer to write, compile and run programs, and then test their results using printed output which would be collected in large batches which would be sorted and stacked for pick-up later in the day.

This is where I first met John, who worked behind the counter in the I/O room, in a job that is probably all but extinct these days. John was a shift operator that semester at the computing center, responsible mostly for I/O operations. You might have found him in the back loading tapes and punch cards for researchers. Often at other times, he would be out front sorting printouts from monsterous character printers - black machines with massive inked rolls that would stamp 140 characters one line at time on unending tractor-fed streams of wide, green and white-lined paper.

Walking into the I/O room, you couldn't ignore that behind the printers, was a huge printout picture of the San Francisco bay bridge which covered most of the entire wall, as well as a publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy donning a familiar tunic and pointed ears, holding a model of the Starship Enterprise. Most students would pick up their printouts and continue on with their day. Geeks like me stopped and noticed that the pictures had been printed from the same character printers we were using to list our programs and output - they couldn't print pictures as we take for granted today. I asked John how creating pictures on the batch printers was possible, and he told me the details about how the text files included special characters to tell the print tractors not to advance at certain points so that the printer bar would overstrike on certain lines, turning each character into a crude picture element. I immediately asked him if the files were available because I wanted to print copies for myself. He said he couldn't tell me because of the amount of printer time and ink-roll it would use. If the shift operators saw a poster being printed, they would delete the print job from the console and warn the user about system resource abuse. Without pause, John reached under the counter that seperated us and placed a large folded printout in front of me labelled "Spock", and pushed it towards me. I looked at the printout, which was clearly the same poster on the wall, looked at John, and began to ask, "I thought you said that no one could...", to which John interrupted me with a wide-eyed devilish grin and yelled "OOPS!" for all to hear as he covered up the printout with both hands.

Little did I know at the time that over the next twenty-plus years, John would continue to appear in my life, and that we would share many laughs, as late as this past July.

Harmless technical mischief for the sake of connecting with someone, having a good laugh, and helping anyone were some of John's signature characteristics. Part MacGyver, a little bit Loki, and possibly seperated at birth from Alton Brown, John Ponte would make it his goal to find fun and humor in just about any situtation as a means of counterbalancing a world that offered far too little of it.

Twenty years ago, John was a character no different than any outgoing person. During this time we were a group of students from around the country on our own and finding our identities, living the last phases of our formative years away from the nest. College does that to people as they pick which forks in their roads to take. John was an important mile marker. For many of us who knew him then, John was a person we would have liked to have had in our lives at least five years before we met him. In a world that was beginning to teach the harder lessons of adult responsibilities, John reminded us that it was ok to have fun while we finished growing up, and would later remind so many of us that fun is for grown-ups. John's antics on the surface were thematically no different than any other form of benevolent mischief, but at their core was a desire to learn more about the world around us, through the simplest of materials and circumstances. For some of us, this meant truly appreciating the value of a milk crate, almost to the point of mimicing the great Tulip Mania of the early 17th century. For others it meant being yanked out of bed at 4am and being stuffed into a blue Dodge Charger and driving 90 minutes to watch a sunrise. For still others it meant being affectionately identified in a crowded room as "Baghead!" with complete absense of concern for the confusion this might cause others in the audible vicinity. This would be a trait that would only become more endearing as the years would go by, at least for me. John would call me out of the blue, especially if we hadn't talked in close to a year. On more than one occasion, I would receive an unidentified call that I would take in my office on speakerphone, usually in the presence of my managers or even some of the company executives, who would turn around and wonder why my name was "Yo, Baghead!"

With the passage of time, people move to different parts of the world, pursue careers, change careers, raise families, and become centers of new social clusters. Inseperable friends of the old days lose touch with each other as the demands of day to day living pull our focus to the here and now, and the uncertain future ahead. John pursued his own life as did those of us who knew him, but with an important exception. John made it a point to stay in touch with almost everyone he developed a friendship, and help them along in his own way no matter how much time might have passed between contacts. If a new child arrived in the lives of older friends, John would humorously threaten and send gifts that would influence the family for years to come, such as an introductory installment to the Captain Underpants collection. If friends would visit him in Colorado, he would take them to dinner at the Trail Dust, and insist that the adults go to the second floor and ride the huge slides down to the main floor to show the kids how it was done. If you had car problems and John found out about it, you'd receive instructions to purchase the appropriate Chilton's and Haynes guides (even for Fiats), followed by remote help from John in diagnosing the problems you were having so that you weren't taken for a ride by your local mechanic or dealership. Even as late as July of this year, I was fortunate to get John's help in helping to diagnose a serious engine leak and determine that I had not blown a head gasket, and should avoid recommendations to replace the engine on the presumption that the head gasket was bad.

For many people that John touched, he acted as a social lubricant. But a funny thing can happen to lubricants as they stay in contact with surfaces over time - they can sometimes start to act like glue. The news of John's passing has shed momentary light on the sheer scale of how much John influenced many people's lives, and in a heartbeat, has brought people back together that haven't seen each other in over a decade or more. It has also shown us that right up until his passing, John's selfless desire to help people with humor and knowledge (often a mix of the two) had not changed.

John's life was not devoid of challenges. It is very likely that much of John's approach to life was a response to those challenges. The irony of this circumstance is unpalatable only if we let John's influences pass with him. Twenty years from now, or even two hundred years from now, you, the reader may be staring at these words, and possibly follow the embedded links and read archives of the referenced articles and sites, and wonder who John Ponte was. I encourage your curiousity.

It may not ever be possible to know just how many people John touched in his life or how far his influences will resonate through following generations.

One thing is certain, the world is a better place, because John Ponte was in it.


Panther said...

What does THIS button do have become watchwords of my life, thanks to the baghead......



Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jim, for a fine tribute.

Mary Ponte (John's mom)

Anonymous said...

A fine tribute.

John was a powerful and positive influence on me while studying astronomy at UMASS. He was my role model, wise, fun, intelligent, and deeply caring for all. Years after UMASS, I was serving in the MA ANG. The drive was too far for me and John volunteered a room at his house in Conway. I feel privileged to call him a friend. John's enthusiasm was infectious. His fabled Starship Dodge (1974 Charger SE) inspired me to get a '74 Charger SE for my first car. He is the only other person besides myself to drive it, and I'm glad I was able to do that for him. We all are better people for having known John.

Andy Cassidy

Anonymous said...

....And I never forgot the rubber chicken on the computer!
Like learning new things, John taught us that life is not so scary.