The Lay Minister, the Library, the Luddite, and Linux

How some lucky people in Dubois WY learned to understand computers, and got a free one in the bargain.

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MaryEllen041516_1 Mary Ellen Honsaker creates beautiful paintings of wildlife. She also feeds the hungry, helps the homeless, rescues abandoned animals, and sometimes delivers sermons.

Now she can tinker with the guts of her computer as well.

“I have held my motherboard in my hand,” she told me proudly. Coming from Mary Ellen, this evokes an oddly comforting image.

Mary Ellen retired recently as secretary of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, and this presented a problem. She continues to manage the food bank, the community garden, the farmers market, the backpack program that provides school lunches for needy families, and Salvation Army services in Dubois. She needs to write grant applications and homilies. Of course she needs email.

But her computer was very old and dying. Now on a fixed income, she couldn’t afford a new one.

At the risk of putting words in her mouth, she might call this the grace of God: She saw an ad in the newspaper that the local library was giving computers away for free, just for the cost of attending a few classes.

All she had to do was learn how to give her new computer a brain.

At the risk of amusing him, let’s consider John McPhail the angel who made that possible. I won’t include a picture of John, who calls himself a “closet Luddite” even though he is an IT guy with the local phone company, DTE.

cardcatalogJohn was the one who helped the Fremont County Library System with another problem: The libraries were upgrading their computers. Their IT director didn’t want to simply put the old ones in the landfill, but she couldn’t just give them away loaded with the Windows operating system, either. That would violate the license agreement.

He met the director of the Dubois branch for lunch at the Cowboy Cafe. “I said, why not give a class on how to install a new operating system, from scratch?” he recalled. (He was thinking of the open-source software Linux, which mirrors Windows but is totally free.)

Many people over the age of 50 are threatened by computers, John knew. Before sending them home with one, he suggested, he’d teach them how to “take it apart and get to know it. There’s nothing inside there but copper, steel, silicon, and plastic.”

“Cool!” she replied. “Would you do that?” He has now completed classes for all three libraries in the county, and the computers have gone home with new “brains”.

MaryEllen041516_2In the first of the two half-day classes, Mary Ellen said, John taught his students how computers work and how to care for them. They took the machines apart and put them back together. In the next class he taught them how to install the new Linux operating system, Ubuntu. She says it’s almost like the Windows she was familiar with, and works well.

One of the last things he did in class: He demonstrated how to google.

Like many of his students, John can remember the day when he went to the library to look things up in a card catalog. “Here,” he said, “the local library just sent people home with a whole set of encyclopedias, for free.”

How cool is that?

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Author: LivingDubois

I am a retired science journalist, devoted to enjoying and recording the many pleasures of life in the Wyoming's Upper Wind River Valley.

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