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Changing course was the original direction

Douglas Fritz • Mar 31, 2019 at 9:00 AM

What could have been wasn’t, and I’m glad it worked out the way it did.

When I stepped onto the campus at East Tennessee State University in the fall of 1982, I was fairly directionless in terms of a career. But there was something that intrigued me: computers. I can pinpoint two reasons why I was interested in the field of computer science: “Star Trek” and baseball statistics.

“Star Trek” ran for three seasons on NBC television from 1966-69. I remember watching an episode during those years at my grandfather’s house on Brightridge Drive in Kingsport, but I really enjoyed the show more as I absorbed afternoon reruns in the early 1970s. The computer system that guided the Enterprise was amazing to my young brain. Could a computer really deliver a bowl of hot soup like it did in the “Tomorrow is Yesterday” episode?

As for baseball statistics, I was fascinated by the numbers. Batting average, stolen bases, ERA. I was constantly writing them down, or making up my own as I dreamed of being a professional baseball player one day. As I used pencil and paper to record statistics, it seemed to me a computer would have helped streamline the process.

So when I headed to Johnson City for my first semester at ETSU, I looked for a major. Computer science jumped off the page of the course catalog.

I was still a minor, not yet 18 years old as I began college. Now as I look back at the timeline of the computer programming explosion, I would have been the perfect age to be involved in some part of the computer industry in the early 1990s when things rocketed skyward. Basically, if I stayed with my first college choice, I would have had a chance to make a ton of money.

Sound like an opportunity for regret? It’s not.

My first computer class at ETSU was called “BASIC” (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). I liked it and aced the class. I enjoyed “playing” with computers. The first program I attempted to write was finding a way to input information and have it rank college football teams. Yes, I was ahead of the curve in some respects, but I could not get the program to run properly. Still, I made an A in the class.

My next step was where it all changed. In the mid-1950s, a man named John Backus developed a programming language called Fortran. It was short for “The IBM Mathematical Formula Translating System.” It was my Waterloo. It crushed me and produced my first F in the world of college academia.

It can be said I simply didn’t have what it took to be involved in the world of computers. But looking back, and judging from my computer understanding through the years, I think it was partly a case of not having the necessary training to handle a beast like Fortran. High schools weren’t churning out programming-savvy graduates in the early 1980s.

But the biggest reason, I believe, for my computer failure was a different purpose in life. I changed my major to criminal justice, but that didn’t grab my attention.

Then I tried to major in accounting because my dad was a CPA. No bueno.

Finally, I settled on journalism. It was the right thing for me. And I think the timing was right. Meandering around in college for a couple of years allowed things to line up for Jerry Hilliard, Jack Mooney and Murv Perry to be in their respective positions at ETSU — where they skillfully guided me into a career in the newspaper business. Their direction, especially Hilliard and Mooney, was critical. I actually entered the field of journalism equipped to handle it from Day 1. Not that I didn’t make mistakes along the way, but I had a strong foundation.

So things worked out the way they were supposed to work out. If I had become a millionaire, I likely would have burned out and crashed. I wasn’t mature enough to handle that kind of monetary success.

I couldn’t see a plan for my life back in 1982. And even though I tried a few times to get off the path, there was always something that kept me on it.

Garth Brooks once sang that life is better left to chance. But I disagree. I believe life is better left in the hands of the sovereign God.

Douglas Fritz is sports writer at Johnson City Press and Kingsport Times News. Reach him at [email protected]

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