An Education

I wrote this essay to express the depth of gratitude I feel for my alma mater creating a course of study for something so new that there was no degree plan, and the decade or so I lived and learned in Little D.

Image courtesy University of North Texas.



A woman I had never met knocked on my front door. She gave me the name of a young bass player and asked if I knew where he was. I did. He happened to be taking a nap in my spare bedroom.

That moment would prove to be the fateful coincidence completing the long arc of my tertiary education.

Higher education takes many forms. A lot of people do very well with no college education at all, establishing their careers with on-the-job experience. Associates degrees and technical schools can quickly get some on the employment track. Others earn a bachelor’s and grab a job that may or may not coincide with their college major. A select pack get master’s degrees and PhDs to show their proficiency in usually established fields or to research new realms in those fields. 

But, what if your dream was to do something so new that there was no degree plan?  

North Texas State University (now UNT) did right by me by employing a creative approach to teaching. And the university’s home of Denton, just by being Denton, put me in contact with a unique and inspiring bunch of people. I am thankful for both.

In my high school years, I had been more social than scholarly. It was a work ethic I maintained through my first year at North Texas. Before graduating, however, I had enlisted in the Navy. So, after my first year in college, I went to an airbase in Vietnam and then to sea aboard an aircraft carrier. I acquired some real-life experience and learned how to focus my efforts. 

With the GI Bill’s educational benefits to pay my way, I returned to school and spent two years assessing business, English, history, journalism, and psychology majors. Finally, I learned I had a little talent for music and substantially more for visual art.

While plowing through the art curriculum, a part-time job in the campus computing center introduced me to publications that hinted at the untapped potential of computers. I also discovered I understood computing technology and had a flair for programming.

Soon, I fell into the orb of a few students following their curiosity and independently exploring what would later be called New Media. We experimented with electronic music and image synthesis, videography, programming primitive computing devices, and ways to present ideas in these new forms. A diffuse group, we usually worked alone or in groups of two or three, comparing accomplishments and failures between classes or in cafes or bars.

I also got involved with a political movement called Artists and Outlaws which was started by Dwayne Carter, an artist now based in Dallas. It spread from the art department to liberal arts students across the campus. We felt the athletics department was dominating the majority of educational resources, and we wanted to do something about it.

At this time, I was also co-publishing and editing a small art magazine called Prima with Tre Roberts, an artist now living in Portland, Oregon. Beyond the flyers put out by Dwayne, it became the visual center of Artists and Outlaws.

From the Artists and Outlaws meetings—sometimes in faculty members’ homes—and from Prima, the Liberal Arts deans got wind of this small group of students exploring art and technology.

Out of the blue, as far as I could tell, the Colleges of Music, Science, Visual Arts and Design, and Liberal Arts and Social Sciences decided to formalize our efforts.

Walking into the art building one day, I was met by the department’s Undergraduate Coordinator, Professor Claudia Betti. She stood like a colossus just inside the doorway and said: “We don’t know what you are up to, but we’re going to help.”

These words were a life-changing moment for me. I still get moved to the point of tears at the thought of this unbelievably great gift from my school.

At about the same moment, everyone in this group of experimenters had a transformative moment similar to mine. 

Over the next two years, this loose cadre of emerging artists, musicians, electronics experimenters, computer enthusiasts, and videographers studied and jammed with visiting techno-artists while taking courses ranging from television production to holography.

I was also remarkably fortunate to meet Ric Speed, now an El Rancho, New Mexico artist. Although not a student at North Texas, he was a programmer working on a project for the university’s book store. His intense desire and experimental efforts in computing, music, and visual art paralleled my own, guiding and boosting my knowledge immeasurably.

After many more than four years at North Texas, I graduated with a general art degree and a profusion of electives. At that point, I needed to learn more about computers and make a living while doing it. With a recommendation from university programmer Jim Kuykendall, I procured a low-level job in the City of Denton’s data processing department.

During this period, I continued playing in No Sweat, an eccentric latin-rock-reggae-swing band. It kept my creative juices flowing while I absorbed information about data processing and got promoted to programmer.

Two years after I started working there, my department’s director got tired of fussing with the city manager and quit. I was named temporary director in his place. In that role, I helped build a new computing center while converting the city’s accounting, customer service, library, tax, and utility applications from the Univac 90/30 system to the IBM 4341. 

Working around the clock forced me to leave No Sweat. Yet, even after taking that off the table, I dropped from my slim 135 pounds to 118 due to ceaseless toil and subsisting on coffee and animal crackers from vending machines. My old friend, Bob Schloss, still in Denton, came to my rescue. Not only was he a fellow musician, he was a Registered Nurse.

He didn’t urge me to quit my position for my health because he knew that I, like him, loved and served Denton and its citizens. Instead, he propped me up with injections of vitamin B-12. He understood that a bit of sacrificing oneself for the greater good was sometimes necessary. 

Upon refurbishing the building, installing and testing the the converted programs on the IBM and its peripherals, and switching computer operations to the new location, I trained my chain-smoking, aspirin-gulping replacement and resigned.

Those years I considered graduate school. An official commendation from the Denton City Council recognizing my efforts was my diploma.

Immediately, I took a consulting job combining the Univac 90/40 computer systems of Colonial Savings and Fort Worth Savings and converting them to the IBM 4300 series. However, even though I was earning substantially more money with less effort, I yearned to work closer to my field. 

At the end of the Fort Worth contract, I heard that the USDA Service Center in Denton needed someone to help them clear out a batch of overdue projects. I jumped at the chance to create art and do voice-overs for a series of educational film strips. 

That job was like a vacation, yet I could still earn a living. I was not allowed to work more than eight hours a day and even had weekends off. This gave me the chance to regain weight and muscle mass by eating better and tooling around Denton County on my bicycle in what I considered to be my copious free time.

In 1982, Neil Feldman, the forward-looking owner of Video Post and Transfer, a growing post-production house for film and video in Dallas, bought a Dubner CBG-2. This machine was the first dedicated broadcast-quality graphics and animation computer. 

Not long after the Dubner was delivered, I heard that fateful knock on my front door. On opening it, I had the opportunity to meet Marci Folsom, an artist now based in San Francisco or Chico, California (sightings vary). She heard I had been giving her musician friend a place to crash for the last month or so.

I had, indeed, taken in a sad-looking waif of a bass player brought to me by former bandmate Greg Hansen, a musician currently based in Denver, Colorado. He told me Marci had tossed the bassist out of their apartment. According to her, he was useless when it came to housework and errands. She added that when he wasn’t playing, he only slept and took showers.

While waiting for my roommate to wake up and shower, Marci and I sat and chatted. It didn’t take long for us to realize we were who each of us was looking for. She was learning to work the Dubner for Neil, but they both realized she needed a partner who was not only a technologically adept artist but a programmer as well.

That was Friday night. Monday morning, I asked for and received a day off from work at the USDA and drove to the Video Post and Transfer studios located in the old Braniff Airlines wing of Love Field in Dallas. There, I laid my portfolio and resumé out in front of Neil and his Chief Science Officer, Dan Sokol, now living in Los Gatos, California.

They liked what I had to offer.

The backlog at USDA had been eliminated, so I reported to Video Post the following Monday and immediately began working 100 hours a week. For the next few months, I learned the Dubner and everything I could about the technology and art of video post-production. Total techno-bliss for my brain.

Even more exciting, I discovered the thrill of creating with artists working at the cutting edge of high-end video.

And so it went, in various forms, for over 40 years; an education and a career synthesized by an unexpected opportunity presented in the entrance to the North Texas Art Department and, years later, a fortuitous knock at my front door.


An interesting postscript: not only did everyone in this group of experimenters have a life-changing moment similar to mine at North Texas, we all enjoyed careers in the field we helped invent.* 

This includes Tim Walsh, a Texas artist now based in San Marcos. He was the original clarinetist/saxophonist for the Grammy Award-winning band Brave Combo. He now runs Laser Spectacles, Inc., an entertainment production company specializing in designing, producing, and installing laser shows and related projects that merge sound and light to create stunning effects. 

Alas, time has blurred almost all of the names and faces of the others in this group. If it’s you or someone you know, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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* Professor William McCarter of the UNT College of Visual Arts and Design told me this at a party at Joe Clark’s home six or seven years after I started working at Video Post. Bill helped craft the special coursework and bring in visiting artists to work with the New Media cadre. Joe is a Denton-based artist with an amazingly broad set of skills who joined Marci and me a year and a half after I came aboard.