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Computer pioneer resettles in Wesson

By Bob Arnold

Computer pioneer resettles in Wesson
Rob Rector, with his cat Sophie, shows poster that welcomed his wife Joan to the Beehive assisted living facility.

A little more than a year ago, Rob Rector, a Houston resident and father of Stephanie Duguid, Co-Lin’s Dean of Academic Instruction, resettled in Wesson with Joan, his wife of 41 years, in the last stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, who he transferred to the Beehive assisted living facility at Brookhaven from care in Houston.


Ask him to compare his new life to the one he left behind, and he shows you two photos on his cell phone: One taken from a car driving on Highway 51 pictures one car in the opposite lane and a dashboard clock showing 5:20 p.m. The other is an aerial view of the spaghetti-like entanglement of freeways in the Houston area.


“It’s Wesson and Houston at rush hour,” says Rector. “It’s symbolic of the different pace and pressures. I miss Houston restaurants – gumbo at Floyds and enchiladas at Molinas, but my blood pressure demonstrates the effect of the move – 165/120 when I left Houston and 118/68 in Wesson.”


His daughter Stephanie coaxed him to make the move to Wesson, and found the Beehive for her stepmother, who died there last month, where she spent her last days in a family ambiance in which personal care was emphasized in contrast to largely indifferent, but competent medical care in Houston.


“Life has been like night and day for me, and was for my wife,” says Rector. Rector’s journey to Wesson encompasses an education and career in the early days of computing when digital equipment started making analog devices a relic of the past, teaching scuba diving, helping the U.S. space program with its computer needs after the Challenger space shuttle disaster shut it down and travelling to all 50 U.S. states and 63 foreign countries in the course of his work.


Born at Pocatello, Idaho, the location of the hospital closest to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where his father worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, Rector lived with his mother in his early childhood at Nevada, Iowa, while his father served in the Air Force during World War II. His father continued his Air Force career following the war, moving his family to Columbia, South Carolina; Fort Worth, Omaha, Florence and Naples in Italy and finally Washington, D.C., where Rector graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland in 1958.


As they moved from place to place, Rector developed an interest in electronics nurtured by working with Lionel Train sets and accessories to build a growing model railroad system. “Each time we were transferred to a different bast, I would find parts and components of model trains left behind that I used, and my interest in electronics grew along with my model railroads,” Rector recalls.


Out of high school, Rector joined the Army, intending to learn flying at its air academy, but instead went to its Data Processing Equipment Operations School at Indianapolis, where he learned about unit record computing and wiring panels for equipment, when the Army determined he was too tall to pilot airplanes with small cockpits.


“As analog equipment was beginning to be replaced by digital equipment, I was in the right place at the right time as I entered college and then embarked on a career,” Rector says.


When he enrolled in electrical engineering studies at Louisiana Tech (LT) in 1962, college officials, after learning about his Army experience, put him to work on LT’s new IBM 1620 computer with 60K of memory as the focal point of his learning. Today, cell phones have more memory than those 60K computers in the 1960s. Modern laptops have built-in disc drives and dedicated printers, while those 1960s computers required card decks with programmed instructions for processing and printing. With “keys to the computer center and access to the manuals,” however, Rector and his student colleagues at Louisiana Tech used their primitive computers to perform pre-stress concrete beam calculations for bridges on Interstate 20 bridges in Louisiana that are still standing and mapping crystals, among other things, as they earned their degrees.

In 1967, Rector received his Electrical Engineering degree from LT, and joined Western Geophysical (WG), a part of Litton Industries, at Shreveport, Louisiana, and was immediately transferred to Houston, where he helped develop digital oil exploration equipment and programmed control and navigation systems for ships. His work over 20 years at the company encompassed nine trips to Alaska one summer and took him to the Philippines and Singapore to test experimental and manufacturer equipment and systems on ships. He developed processing systems for Geophysical Data vehicles at WG’s Galveston laboratory from 1971-75, and served as president of WG’s Digital Data Systems subsidiary for three years. He also worked with mixed success with Litton Medical Systems to apply geophysical mapping systems to ultrasonic medical scanners – an adaptation that, in the end, proved impractical because of the cost.


Rector temporarily left the fledgling computer world in 1985 to turn a scuba diving hobby into a business – Aquaventures – with a partner – to train diving professionals. As a youth in Italy, he had started snorkeling and received instruction on use of aqua lungs, continuing with the hobby over the years to become a Scuba Diving Master Instructor.


In 1988 following the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, Rector dedicated himself to computing, and started applying his experience to help rebuild the U.S. space program, which virtually shut down in the aftermath of the accident. Unisys, a part of what became United Space Alliance, hired him as a Flight Integrator to bring an array of digital products used in the space shuttle into a single system. His work over 19 years until his retirement in 2007 included development of systems that enabled the successful launch of the Hubble Space Telescope; mission control software for varied manned and unmanned space flights, including those related to the space shuttle and space station; and simulators for space shuttle and building the space station.


In addition to his work, family has been an important part of Rector’s life. He has two daughters – Stephanie, who introduced him to Wesson, and Kimberly, an investment counselor based in Boston, with his first wife, Marjorie, whom he married as a college student in 1963. Through his two daughters and step children through his second wife Joan, he has six grandchildren.


What are your hobbies? Scuba diving was a passion that I had to give up because of an aging body, and, for 20 years, I cared for my wife Joan in her battle with Alzheimer’s. I have nothing that really is a focus of my attention now.


Are you a reader? When I was a commuter in Houston, I got into audio books – John Grisham, Clive Cussler’s adventures and thrillers, Neal DeGrasse Tyson on science.


Do you follow movies or theater? I am into the old Sean Connery James Bond movies. Modern movies are too much about special effects. So I don’t follow them.


How about music? I like jazz and country – the music of Wes Montgomery, B.B. King and Cal Tjader. I don’t enjoy the music kids like today. With better music, they would have better attitudes.


What would you do with the winnings if you won the lottery? I would travel. Although I’ve travelled to all 50 U.S. states and to 63 foreign countries, I somehow missed Australia and New Zealand. They are on the top of my list. Next, I would spend my money on family care, particularly education.


How would you change the world? The political divisions and “my way or the highway” opinions are big problems. I don’t know the answers, but I know what needs to be addressed.


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