NEWTON, Kan. (Mennonite Mission Network) — Larry Becker recently heard a phrase: “When you’re on the last page, it’s time to close the book.” On Jan. 29, Becker will close a volume 50 years in the writing—the length of his service to the church.
But the local systems administrator does not plan to stop adding pages. His departure is a change, not a retirement.
For the last half-century, Becker, 69, has helped first the General Conference Mennonite Church and now Mennonite Church USA advance technologically, leading the shift from typewriters to computers in the 1970s and staying on top of the rapid technological evolutions of recent decades, despite having no official training in electronics.
“He's the one who brought the computers to us. … He's trained himself, has taken a few classes. He's brought us into a technological age,” said Chris Graber, information technology helpdesk manager and systems trainer.
Why 50 years in one place? First, Becker likes to finish what he starts. And he thought that this was his call, his niche that allowed him to do pleasurable work for the church. This place, he said, offered a different kind of work with people he enjoyed.
Becker, a member of First Mennonite Church in Newton, had dreamed of being a farmer, like his family in Turpin, Okla., but land was scarce. In 1960, Becker joined the General Conference’s Newton, Kan., office on a 1-W assignment that replaced military service. His mother, Mary Ann (Boese) Becker, found the job for him from an ad in The Mennonite. He began in the printing and mailing department without experience.
“I had never seen a postage meter or a press before. But I learned,” Becker said. “God gave me a knack for figuring things out. I think growing up on the farm gave me a feel for doing things myself and working with my hands.”
Over the years, Becker worked in accounting, was manager of information technology, and was in charge of maintenance for the Newton office.
“Larry knows where every wire is for every office because he likely put it there, fixed it, or saw it when he was crawling through the ceiling working on something else,” Graber said. “He knows the crawlspaces under the building, too.”
Becker repaired everything from typewriters to computers to tin siding blown from the office building by powerful Kansas winds. His knack for self-education helped him stay current with technological advances that have made his job less about his hands and more about his mind. Gone are the days when he found a way to fix an early malfunctioning Datapoint computer by noticing a spark on its circuit board and spot-soldering a wire back in place. Today, he said, he just replaces the boards.
Becker was an early proponent of computers and other technological gadgets. He owned one of the early personal computers—the Commodore VIC-20—and pushed for the Datapoint system for the GC offices in the late-1970s. Even as some employees grumbled, Becker said he saw the ability of technology to improve data collection and communication. Of course, he thought one computer in each department for employees to share would be plenty.
Today, Becker makes no claims of technologically predictive powers.
“Then I could see how repetitious things could be processed. Now I don’t know what can be next,” he said. “I’m not saying we’ve invented everything there is to be invented, but I’m sure the next 10 years will be a lot different than what we think.”
While he is unsure what lies ahead, it may be better than what has recently passed. Becker’s wife, Pat, who battled multiple chemical sensitivities and co-founded a Mennonite chemical sensitivities support group through the Anabaptist Disabilities Network, died of cancer Aug. 4, 2008, just eight days shy of the their 48th anniversary. They had three children and four grandchildren. Later, Becker himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer and recently had eye surgery that required him to keep his face pointed at the ground for nearly four weeks. His vision is still blurry.
In Becker’s office sit a few relics, a few memories—old parts and pieces, an 8-inch floppy disk, one of the church’s original Datapoint computers and a long-dormant PC, the first bought by the denomination. Before he leaves, he said, he may fire it up again, while standing by with an extinguisher in case of smoke. Then he will walk out of the same door he’s entered for 50 years.
“I’m ready to open a new book and start a first page somewhere else,” he said.
Melanie Zuercher’s Feb. 4, 2000, news release for General Conference Mennonite Church, “Forty-year veteran keeps things running at GC offices,” contributed to this story.