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An Incredible Story About An Incredible Man

Monday, January 3, 2011   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Larry Schmitz, CCP,CMC

(From notes supplied by Lou Buell from his interview with Cliff Van Ess)

Each year, I try to make it down to Sheboygan, Wisconsin to play in the AITP/Sheboygan Chapter golf outing. Several years ago, Tony LaCrosse (Milwaukee Chapter) and I needed a fourth for our foursome.

Lou Buell, the outing chairman, suggested that he put one of their Charter Members in our group. Knowing that the chapter was started in 1964, I thought "this guy must be pretty old, hope he can still play golf".

This "guy" turned out to be Cliff Van Ess --- and can he play!! At age 87, he still shoots in the 40's for nine. And before we teed off, he happened to mention that he already played 9 holes that morning with his "regular" group, and laughed about the fact that in his group, he is only the second oldest guy. And when he plays with his group, he WALKS and pulls his cart. To say we had a very enjoyable time playing with Cliff would be an understatement. He is one class act.

We have been playing with Cliff in that outing ever since.

But here is the "incredible" story about Cliff. He is STILL programming in RPG at age 87. I don't know what the Guinness Book of Records is for longevity of programmers, but he has to either be the winner or real close.

And there is a whole lot more to this "incredible" man.

When World War II broke out in Europe, Cliff left behind a pregnant wife and went off to fight the Nazis in Europe. He was a member of the U.S. Army 75th Infantry Division. He fought in a lot of major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge where his company incurred 93 casualties. Cliff was awarded the Bronze Star/Combat "V", one of the highest honors bestowed on combat veterans. He also has 4 major campaign ribbons.

When the war was over, Cliff was shipped back stateside on a troop ship that docked in Boston. From there, he took a train back to Sheboygan by himself. No fanfare, no hero's welcome.

But good things sometimes happen to good people. On May 2, 2010, Cliff was selected to join other WW II vets on an Honor Flight to Washington, DC. Cliff said it was a great experience. But the best part was on the return trip when they landed in Milwaukee. There was a large crowd there to greet them. He said there wasn't a dry eye anywhere. And the first person who came up to greet Cliff was a little 5 year old girl, who reached out her hand and said "I love you".

Back to Cliff's incredible IT career.

When Cliff returned home from the war, Cliff landed a job with a local manufacturer as an "Apprentice Factory Accountant". Using Remington Rand tabulating equipment, Cliff assisted in the Payroll, Time Accounting, Purchasing and Traffic Control functions at the company.

Later, Cliff worked as the bookkeeper for a local concrete company for 11 years automating their business. When the company was sold, Cliff took a job as the Controller of a Milwaukee based company (which entailed commuting an hour each way every day).

In 1963, the owner of a Sheboygan furniture distributorship asked Cliff if he would come to work for him helping him automate his business. Cliff, happy to avoid the commute, had the company buy a used IBM 403 so Cliff could go about the business of bringing office automation to the company.

Along the way, Cliff set another milestone. He and his wife, Mavis (now deceased), were both avid bowlers and are in the Sheboygan Bowling Hall of Fame. Cliff believes he may have been the first bowling league secretary to automate the league's record keeping using punched card equipment. The man was an innovator in IT even back then.

In 1976, Cliff joined Superior Supply Company in Sheboygan, as their Controller and Data Processing Manager. His first order of business was to buy a computer so he could automate the business. He bought an IBM System 32, which he had never seen before and had no idea how to operate. He immediately set about teaching himself to program in RPG. As he continued to automate applications, the company outgrew the System 32 so Cliff bought a used System 34 and then another, and finally an AS 400 and migrated all of Cliff's RPG applications right along with the hardware upgrades.

In the past 10 years, Cliff has been contemplating retiring, only to be talked out of it by the company owner. But the owner knew that the day Cliff would actually retire was imminent so he started looking at packaged software to replace Cliff's custom applications. Cliff "officially" retired August 15, 2010.

When Cliff and I played golf in the Sheboygan outing on August 18, it sounded to me like Cliff wasn't going to stay retired very long. And sure enough, three weeks later, the company owner called Cliff and explained that the packaged software implementation was "not going so smoothly", so Cliff agreed to go back to work. Cliff told Lou Buell in Lou's interview with him for this story that those 3 weeks of "retirement" are the only time off (other than vacation time) that he has NOT been at work somewhere over the past 70 years. Incredible!!

Cliff's contributions to AITP/DPMA over all the years since helping found the Sheboygan chapter of DPMA in 1964 are also impressive. Cliff admits that when he joined DPMA back in 1964, he was, as he put it, "green as grass" in the field of computers but saw the DPMA chapter meetings as an opportunity to "listen and learn" from the "pro's in the chapter". People like Terry Kohler of the Vollrath Company, and Stu Warrington of Heritage Mutual Insurance.

Cliff held every position possible in the chapter and was the co-founder of the Sheboygan golf outing.

This year, the chapter presented Cliff with a plaque thanking him for his contribution to this highly successful, fund raising golf outing. Cliff confided in me as we were playing golf this year, that although he helped co-found the golf outing, he, himself, didn't know how to play golf at the time. So he borrowed a set of clubs from a fellow charter DPMA member, and, as they say, the rest is history. Now he and his cronies play every morning, Monday through Friday. And yes, when you are still working at age 87, you get to set your own "flex time".

I want to thank Lou Buell for interviewing Cliff and getting the details for this story. Fittingly enough, Lou, himself a much decorated Marine combat veteran, got together with Cliff and did the interview on November 11 - Veteran's Day. Cliff told Lou that the lady he has been dating since his wife passed away, says "a man is defined by his work". Lou adds, "We would all like to be defined like Cliff Van Ess, a credit to his profession and the human race."

Pictured above is Lou Buell (left), Sheboygan AITP Chapter Golf Outing Chairman, presenting a plaque of appreciation to Cliff Van Ess on the occasion of the 38th Annual Golf Outing ,co-founded by Van Ess.

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