Joe Devlin and Emily Berk
If you get cable and live on the coast, you probably know Larry Nelson's voice and his work. Nelson is Operations Manager at Mid-Coast Television (MCTV) of El Granada. MCTV Channel 6 broadcasts local community events four nights a weeks to nearly 7000 cable subscribers. Tune in Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m. and you are likely to hear Larry's voice introducing that night's schedule— school board meetings, the planning commission, local theatrical productions-— fun and informative stuff; sometimes both at the same time.
Nelson's extensive background with computers, video and photography makes him a natural at MCTV. But Nelson's path to high tech on the coast has twisted and turned through many continents, many technologies and many occupations. Larry's journey to MCTV began when he hit a priest with a desk. "I was reading a book when I should have been listening to him. He knocked me out of my chair and then threw the book out the third floor window. I had been 6 foot 3 and 3/4 since I was 12, and wasn't used to being attacked. Thoughtlessly, I picked up my desk and hit him with it." Nelson was expelled from high school. "It's tough to get a job without a degree so I joined the US Infantry, where I got my GED, and set off to see Europe."
After his stint in the army, Nelson worked a two-year gig as a Cordon Bleu pastry chef in Rome (ask Larry about it sometime; his life is even more interesting than it sounds here!). Then, in 1966, Nelson found himself back in the States, working 9 to 5 in a bank, and observing as they installed some computers. "I didn't know anything about computers, but I have an aptitude for electronics," recalls Larry, "and before long I had wormed my way into the computer department feeding punch cards into reader sorters. In those days, anybody who worked for a company that used IBM equipment could take IBM courses for free-— and the IBM education center was across the street. Before long, I found myself working night shifts at the bank so I could spend my days taking courses at the IBM training center. The day courses gave me the know-how to keep getting better positions. I worked for the bank for four years with a nine-month sabbatical to pursue another interest, photography."
Nelson had always been interested in photography. But his equipment was stolen on the ship back from Europe. To rebuild his camera collection, he did weekend jobs for a photographer. "I guess I have a good eye, because that led to an assignment as a National Geographic stringer attached to a Cousteau team studying whale migrations in Baja California. That nine-month leave from the bank was the time of my life."
"During my last year working for the bank, I ran shifts at the bank's computer center and programming applications running on those computers." Nelson next took a position in the computer department of what is now the Pacific Stock Exchange. "Each year I learned more as I bounced from one interesting job to another."
Meantime, when the rent on their two-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto nearly doubled, Nelson and his wife, Mary, moved to the coast. "We checked out a house in El Granada and loved it. In those days you could commute to Palo Alto or San Francisco from El Granada in less than thirty minutes, and our mortgage payment was less than half of the rent we were being asked to pay in Palo Alto. More than twenty years later, we still live in the same house. A lot has changed since that day. It used to be that the hill behind my house was covered with trees; now that hill is covered with houses. The commute to Palo Alto or San Francisco used to be an easy twenty-five minutes; now can take you an hour just to get to 280. Still, I wouldn't leave the coast for the world."
The work environment changed too. The days of free training for anyone with an aptitude ended. It became harder and harder to convince people that a high school dropout could be current. It all came to a head in 1992. "At that time I was installing wired and wireless networks. I took pride in the fact that my stuff would last three to five years when other companies installed networks that needed constant maintenance. I got great references from my customers, but increasingly, new customers wanted to see paper credentials. When I lost a big contract that I was low bidder on because I did not have a degree, I should've just hired someone with a Masters. Instead, I decided to go back and get myself a degree in electrical engineering.
"One of the first courses I took was a video production course. It didn't take me long to realize this was a field which engaged all my knowledge of photography, computers and telecommunications. Once again I found myself excited about the prospect of getting into a new industry just as it was about to take off. It didn't take me long to line up a paid internship at De Anza College, wiring up their new distance learning center. I was involved in installing the cameras, the control room, the edit suite and a link to their local community access station. At the same time, I began working at MCTV as a volunteer."
When MCTV's operations manager left in August of 1998, Nelson was asked to pinch-hit for a month. Three months later, he took the job on a more permanent basis. "My job at MCTV is a varied one. I answer the phone. I also program in all the ads and announcements for the message channel, train volunteers, sign equipment in and out, serve as a video jockey announcing and playing the tapes and as a cameraman for important local events not covered by our volunteers. It's an interesting job that provides me with the freedom, after many years, to get the degree I have been pursuing for so long. This fall I begin my coursework at Caņada College working towards my electrical engineering and computer science degree. I'll be in my sixties when I get that degree, but it will feel great to be able to be able produce a piece of paper that validates a lifetime of experience. Who knows what I will do once I have that degree? The way I see it, the way this industry is changing, my opportunities will continue to be limitless."