Steve Nachtsheim strolls through an Aquinas Hall basement room jammed with more than 100 servers that are the backbone of St. Thomas’ computer systems, and he marvels at the power humming away.
He’s been in the room before, and he’s no stranger to computers and their power, having worked around them throughout his adult life as a professor, administrator and corporate executive.
But all of that technology is still a sight to behold for the man who was introduced to the world of computing as an undergraduate student four decades ago when he worked on a data entry keypunch and St. Thomas’ first computer, donated by Control Data.
“How times change!” Nachtsheim says as he walks between vertical racks of servers. “What we could have done with something like this… .”
As wishful as Nachtsheim’s remark may have been, he has no need to apologize for what he and his peers accomplished at St. Thomas in the 1960s.
It was Nachtsheim, after all, who helped to create the quantitative methods-computer science major, designed and taught courses, served as director of the computing center and chaired a department – all before the age of 27.
“We ate and slept computers, 20 hours a day it seemed,” he said. “It was a true start-up environment. You could invent something every week because everything was so new. We were the leaders in the field – one of the few liberal arts colleges in the country that had a computer and the first liberal arts college in Minnesota with a computer science major.”
Nachtsheim likes to tell stories about the old days not because he longs for them but because they represented such a critical time for St. Thomas as it began to harness the power of computers and create academic programs.
Nachtsheim has been around the St. Thomas campus most of his life. His mom and his dad, Henry, a 1940 alumnus and faculty member who still lives near campus, began to raise their family in the old Tom Town huts on the site of today’s library.
The young Nachtsheim intended to major in chemistry but lost his $100 presidential scholarship and found himself on probation because of a 0.94 GPA as a freshman. He switched majors to business, buckled down and graduated with a B average.
He took an Introduction to Fortran programming course one summer from Jim Lindsay, director of the computing center, and became fascinated with computers. Lindsay put Nachtsheim to work in the center and they collaborated with students such as Joe Komar ’66 and Tom Sturm ’68, who teach computer science at St. Thomas today.
“One Friday, we locked ourselves in 9A Aquinas and developed the first draft of a quantitative methods department, with courses,” Nachtsheim said. “We were too tired to copy everything we had written on blackboards, so I ran home, grabbed a Polaroid and took pictures of all the blackboards. From that we wrote up a curriculum and course descriptions.”
Lindsay met with a faculty committee, which rejected the proposal. “They didn’t like the name ‘computer science’ because we were a liberal arts college,” Nachtsheim said. “We changed it to ‘quantitative methods’ and the major was approved.”
Lindsay was department chair. Komar and Nachtsheim became instructors and soon were joined by Joe Schwebel, who still is on the faculty. They also worked in the computing center, taking in outside jobs such as designing modular class schedules for high schools.
“We were lucky,” Nachtsheim said. “Right time, right place, right group of people who liked to go to Embers at 3 a.m. after finishing a project to talk about what we did. Or we’d end up at Lindsay’s house. He taught me how to drink Scotch, you know.”
Komar calls them the “Wild West” years because of the new territory for this group of pioneers. “We liked to say we were too dumb to know what we couldn’t do,” he said, “so we did it anyway.” Nachtsheim “understood how to make everything work together, which was not an easy task,” Komar said. “We were learning as we were earning.”
“He knew how to make things happen,” Sturm said of Nachtsheim. “You can’t manage if you don’t know what you’re managing, and Steve knew what he was doing. Nobody could pull the wool over his eyes. He had solid technical skills and he knew how to deal with people.”
Nachtsheim became department chair in 1971 and left a year later. He hitchhiked around the world – “I had always wanted to do that” – and joined the University of Minnesota faculty, working in its academic computing center and earning a master’s degree in management information systems.
His background in database management led to an opportunity to join Intel Corp. as director of design automation in 1981. He held several positions at Intel over the next 20 years, and most enjoyed his four years as general manager of European operations because of the opportunity to oversee a 1,200-person workforce, deal with sales, marketing and product development issues, and learn about business practices throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Elected a corporate vice president in 1995, Nachtsheim’s last Intel job after returning to the United States was to lead Intel Capital, then a relatively small operation.
“Intel had not been big on acquisitions,” he said. “I felt a good use of capital was to fund companies strategically aligned with Intel. We would fund start-ups with other VCs (venture capital firms) and provide assistance, and they would enhance our marketing position and business.”
Intel Capital expanded from 20 employees in the United States to 350 in 22 countries under Nachtsheim’s watch from 1998 to 2001, when he retired. He was faced with making a long-term commitment to Intel and decided he had had enough. He doesn’t miss the travel and meetings; he does miss the people and the constant learning.
“It was the same feeling when I left St. Thomas,” he said. “You have to discipline yourself to learn on your own. You don’t learn by osmosis, but by walking down a hall and talking with somebody who can teach you something.”
“Retirement” is anything but that, and his to-do list is just as long as when he was at Intel. He is on several boards, referees youth soccer and spends more time with his wife, Jami, and their 8-year-old daughter. He isn’t interested in becoming a consultant, “but if people want to meet, I’ll meet. I like helping people who have a business problem.”
Above all, 40 years after walking into Aquinas Hall and working on a keypunch and that Control Data computer, Nachtsheim remains utterly fascinated by high technology.
“The thing that constantly surprises me is how people can take a technology and figure out different uses for it,” he said. “I consider myself a fairly imaginative thinker, and every day I read something amazing about a new invention, and I say to myself, ‘Wow. What’s next?’ ”
Steve Nachtscheim ’67 and St. Thomas
• Joined the board of trustees in 2002 and is a member of the Academic Affairs Committee and chair of the ad hoc Technology Committee. He is on a “next Generations” steering committee to build stronger alumni networks.
• Led the effort to name the St. Thoams computing center in memory of James Lindsay, its first director and co-creator of the quantitative methods-computer science major.
• Finds that most students “are excited to be here and learn,” and believes the university’s biggest challenge is to continue to serve them to the greatest possible extent: “You always need to know who you are, your mission and why people come here to learn.”
• Wants to build stronger networks that allow alumni to stay in closer touch with each other and their alma matter.