Embracing 20 years of computer progress
This coming year will bring New Year’s resolutions, new beginnings and the 20th anniversary of the Alexandria area Midwest Educational Computer Association (MECA).
The club’s first meeting took place on Wednesday, January 26, 1994 at Alexandria Technical College and met once a month thereafter.
Its first and second instructors, Len Kaimi and Allen Weddell, respectively, were some of the group’s most influential driving forces, and according to original MECA member Judy Olson of Alexandria, it is thanks to them that the club has stayed afloat for 20 years.
AN IDEA IS BORN MECA was first initiated when Norm Senstad of Carlos and Galen Weinkauf of Alexandria decided to put together a computer club in the Alexandria area.
“Our main intent at first was to help people learn how to use the computers and take their fears away,” said Senstad.
Users then faced many of the same problems they face today, including viruses and learning how to navigate Microsoft Word and Excel. Because computers were not as portable, Kaimi and Weddell spent many hours making house calls to fix people’s computer problems.
The club soon became known as MECA, based on the word “mecca,” referring to a place that draws large numbers of people.
“In the early years of MECA, we had more than 100 members, most of whom understood that computers were the way of the future,” said Olson, who is still a member today.
One of the staples of the group was a digital bulletin board, set up by Senstad and Kaimi, that operated similar to the Internet. Users could use a phone number to call a company’s “website” for free. It offered the opportunity for people to communicate with anyone across the nation.
“Without those early thinkers who saw the need for a club, the local organizations who provided funding and space for us, and Len Kaimi and Allen Weddell, who led some of us ‘kicking and screaming’ into the world of modern day computers, there would be no MECA today,” Olson said.
TAKING A CHANCE After a few years, the club was established and helping guide people into the technological age, but a new need was taking precedence in the community.
According to Olson, the MECA officers met with representatives of Runestone Electric Association (REA), Alexandria Light and Power (ALP) and Runestone Telephone Company about the idea of providing Internet services to the Alexandria area. The idea was sound, but the potential service providers were concerned about getting subscribers.
Senstad recalled, “I remember…they said, ‘We’re kind of worried about stepping into this, but do you think we can get 300 people to sign that?’ And I said, ‘Man, you’re gonna get 1,000.’”
In September of 1996, Internet came to the Alexandria area and the service providers had to add modem after modem to keep up with the demand.
However, Internet users faced long delays for webpages to load via dial-up access.
“I remember subscribing to ancestry.com and waiting for as much as eight minutes for the website to fully load one single census image,” Olson said.
ADAPTING TO THE TIMES When the group first started, the ages of the members were much more diverse, but now the group is mostly seniors, likely due to the fact that younger generations are being raised in a technological world, according to Olson.
In the beginning, Senstad predicted that computers would eventually become the primary way that people manage finances, do their shopping, communicate with others and more. Today, computers have caught up to and surpassed his predictions.
Not only that, but the rise of the Internet gave users access to unlimited knowledge at the click of a button.
“I have almost instant access to knowledge, be it tech support on a computer problem I’m trying to solve, the lyrics to an old song, definition of a word or phrase, or an item we would have had to look up in an encyclopedia previously,” Olson said.
As the usefulness of computers continues to advance, Senstad believes the possibilities are endless.
“Imagination and the competence of the programmer are the only limitations of what a computer system can do,” Senstad said. “Computers are here to stay.”