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February 25th, 2022

Thank You And Goodbye

Today was my last day at work. Office cleaned out, final timesheet filled out and signed, key cards turned in, RSA and DUO tokens given back. My co-workers gave me a nice sendoff last night at Pappi’s. Maybe I had one too many margaritas.

One last thing to do before I leave the paycheck life forever is say goodbye to the people who I worked alongside of at the best job ever…

Today is my last day here at Space Telescope. After 23 years and at age 68 I’m retiring, and moving on to a new stage in my life. But before I go I want to take some time to thank everyone here for making all these years some of the best in my life. I watched the TV raptly as the astronauts launched from Cape Canaveral, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and later the Space Shuttle, and even in my wildest dreams back in those days I’d never thought I’d find a place for myself in the space program. I was raised by a single divorced mother, we didn’t have a lot of money, and expectations placed on me were low.

I want to tell you before I leave about the path that brought me to the Institute, because there are many paths that brought us here and mine speaks I think to something worth remembering about the value people can bring to their jobs, and their communities, regardless of their backgrounds, regardless of their differences, and to what makes this place so special. Sorry if this seems a bit longish.

I think the biggest debt of thanks I owe to any one person in my life is to someone I never got a chance to meet. My maternal grandfather, Albert (who I’m middle named for) built, sold and serviced radios back in the early days of radio, when KDKA was the first commercial radio station.

He suffered a sudden stroke in his mid forties when mom was still a teenager. She loved her dad very much, and while I was growing up anything she saw in me that reminded her of her dad she encouraged. So while I began showing an early interest in art and photography (my first grade teacher wrote in my file that I took “excessive interest in personal art projects”) whenever I showed an interest in radios and electronics she encouraged it, and I got radio kits, Heathkits to build, and all sorts of electronics kits to fiddle with.

I took an interest in shortwave radio because it gave me news and programs from all over the world. I would retrieve discarded radios from behind a radio/TV repair shop near where we lived, and get them working again so I could listen to the BBC, Radio Netherlands, Deutsch World, Radio Johannesburg. Once I brought an old TV home and got it working again, just as mom walked into my room and saw it. I wasn’t allowed to have a TV in my room, mom thought it would be a distraction from my schoolwork. But I knew if I could say the magic words (“I fixed it”) she’d let me keep it.

I bought my first computer, a little Commodore C64, because I saw a kit for it that let you pick up radio teletype transmissions, and also to play video games which were just then becoming a thing. The Commodore’s user interface was its Basic interpreter (which was written by Microsoft for Commodore), and experimenting with that I began to learn programming.

When the first IBM PC came out I was fascinated by it, but the cost of one was way beyond my reach. But one day I was walking around a HAM Fest at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, looking for vacuum tubes for a radio I was working on, I saw a booth that was selling the parts to build a PC compatible. The HAMS were using them for radio teletype. I saw I could buy the parts one piece at a time as I could afford it, which I did, and eventually got my first PC running. I remember staring at it in my room after I booted it up, feeling suddenly a bit intimidated by it, and thinking to myself that it was way more power than I’d ever need.

I bought a modem and started exploring the early online world. Some of the early modem programs allowed you to write scripts for automating connecting and downloading content, which was useful back when your favorite bulletin boards were single line and often busy. I could start off a program and go do something else while the computer tried to connect and get me the latest messages and upload some of mine. I also began experimenting with a copy of Microsoft Quick Basic, and later a copy of their professional development kit which came with the first iteration of their Access database engine. I wrote my own contact manager and calendar application, and made it work with the serial port and modem so I could remote log into it.

Around that time I discovered G.L.I.B.,the Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau bulletin board, created by two gay men as a news and information resource for the community. I’d come out to myself back in high school, but in 1971/72 there were no resources for gay teens and the only place I knew of was a seedy bar down in Georgetown, so finding a safe place to meet and chat with other gay folk who were also techno nerds like me felt like a godsend and I quickly became an active volunteer in the board’s maintenance.

I wrote programs to maintain the user list and send out notices. I managed the calendar of events which we copied from the local gay paper, The Washington Blade. I paid particular attention to the board news section as it was the heart of our mission. One of our members worked for a wire service and he would send me a digest of gay related wire service news items. This was a time when most newspapers barely touched on anything related to our existence. When Anita Bryant went on a warpath in Dade County Florida against an anti discrimination ordinance, I had to find out it had been repealed by listening to a BBC shortwave broadcast because none of the TV news programs said anything about it. I wrote a program to download his news digest, split it out into the individual news items, format them correctly for the BBS software we used, then uploaded them along with a new menu with all the new news items in it.

I was still trying to make a living at my arts then, on the assumption that as long as I had no college degree I would never be hired as a programmer, even though I was getting pretty good at it. I had a few photography gigs for local newspapers but the pay was miniscule. I was earning a small living as an architectural model maker, but the savings and loan scandal in the mid 80s bankrupted the architects I did work for. So I was back to doing Manpower jobs and mowing lawns to make ends meet. I asked the BBS users for help. One of the men who ran the system also had a business teaching classes on the dedicated work processors of the time, and he hired me part time to help him with other work.

I wrote him a membership management system for a gay political group, using Basic, Word Perfect and dBase 4 (working with dBase for I learned how documentation will occasionally lie through its teeth). The system could query the database for new members and generate welcome letters, run monthly queries for members who needed to renew and generate renewal letters, and had a simple menu user interface. The system would take the comma delimited data file dBase generated and reformatted it to Word Perfect’s mail merge format, and send the letters right to the printer

This gave me enough of a resume that when a friend who worked for a contract agency told me Baltimore Gas and Electric was looking for someone who knew Microsoft Basic to work on their Work Measurement System, that I was able to go through the interview process and get the job. I worked for BG&E for three years, delivering an assortment of programs that queried their databases to generate reports for management. That eventually became my stock in trade, along with writing installation kits.

After BG&E I wrote business software for AT&T, Becton-Dickenson, Litton Amecom, Zenica Pharmaceuticals, and several small insurance companies. I still did not have my degree, but my resume was getting pretty big. And with each new contract I gained a level of experience working in different software and hardware environments.

While working for one of the insurance companies, a recruiter at the agency I was working for asked me if I was interested in a part time side job. Not really interested since my plate was pretty full at the time, I asked where. “The Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.” he says, “They operate the Hubble Space Telescope.” Well he didn’t need to ask me twice.

I started work here, as a full time contractor, Thanksgiving week 1998, on the new Grant Management System, code named GATOR. Another business application, which was right up my alley. After a year as a contractor I was given the opportunity to come on board as AURA staff. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

At that time we distributed a Java application to our community, any one of which might be using Microsoft, Apple, SunOS, or Linux. So eventually I was tasked with building a test center we could use to debug problem reports from the community, regardless of what they were running our application on. That first test center was made from a lot of spare parts, again, something I had experience with since by then I’d built several generations of my own household computers from parts. That led to my joining the Integration and Test branch, which eventually led to my working on JWST, the ACTLab, the I&T Lab, and eventually the MOC itself.

And so the kid with low expectations, who watched the first astronauts going into space, found himself one day participating in JWST end to end tests, doing test conductor work, and speaking over the NASA voice loop to outposts on the deep space network. And still writing business software, because science needs business software too. The last major one I turned in was a build report for the Roman Space Telescope project.

I had the job offer letter I got in December 1999 framed and it’s on my den wall at home, along with our group pictures with the astronauts and my awards. There is also a little DayTimer page there, with a note on it to call Lee Hurt about work at Space Telescope.

The Institute opened doors for me, gave me a chance to grow professionally and discover potential within myself that I never knew I had, until I was given the chance. I have never felt safer, or more valued as a coworker anywhere else.

To the other LGBT folk who are new here, let me just say my lived experience here is this place takes diversity seriously. You are safe here, and you are valued.

And to all of you who are new here: you will love working here, and you will be proud of the work you do.

To the rest of you…thank you so much for making these the most wonderful years of my life. I am looking forward to all the great science to come from JWST and Roman. Take care. Love.

-Bruce Albert Garrett

So for 50+ years of my 68, I’ve been tied in one way or another to working for a paycheck. And now suddenly I am not tied to one.

I’ve been told to watch out for depression now that I’m disconnected from the work world. But the identity I’ve built for myself around the work I do has always been flexible out of necessity. There are two parts to me: the techno nerd and the art kid. For decades I’ve made a good living as a software and computer systems engineer. But there’s that other side, I paint, I draw, I do photography, I write stories.

That was the life I was looking toward when I was young. It is how I’ve always seen myself. I have this techno nerd side of me, but basically I am an artist.

But it was don’t quit your day job with me, because I’m so terrible at self promotion, and I never had that single minded focus on one thing, which is what you need to make a living at it. There’s the drafting table, the painter’s easel, the cameras and the darkroom. Stephen Fry said that we are not nouns, we are verbs. I don’t know about everyone, but that is definitely me, and as starving artist wasn’t all that appealing I did what I could for a paycheck, and tried to save time for my artwork. In retrospect maybe I should have gone all in on it, but what eventually Did happen was I got the best job in the world and stuck with it for 23 years.

Now I’m retired. Now I can have that other life without worry about the next paycheck, the one that was always been there in the background, the one I looked toward when I was young.

It got off to a pretty good start already. A couple co-workers came for a visit and I showed them around the house and the art room and one of them asked for a print of something I’d done. That lifted me up as much as watching James Webb launch last Christmas. I don’t know that I’ll ever make any money at it, or gain any recognition beyond this website and some family and friends. But the reason I can call myself an artist without any feelings of pretense after all this time is I know that I’m not doing it for the recognition. Recognition would be nice, it would be wonderful, but I do it because I have to get it out of me. And if you think that’s pretentious you don’t know and I don’t care. Everyone who does this, recognized or not, knows exactly how that is.

Now I can have that life. It starts today.

 

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