In Frankfurt, Germany, Lowell Christiansen Isnt Missing In Action, He Just Hasnt Come Home
Lowell Christiansens 89-year-old mother still asks him on occasion, When are they going to let you come home?
The 1963 North Dakota State University electrical engineering grad left home for an eight-month assignment in Europe 37 years ago.
Hes still there.
In an era of globalization and lightning-paced changes in technology, Christiansens vita reads like a capsulized recounting of that brief period of history:
Now married to a successful German-born artist and comfortably ensconced in the historic Main River city of Frankfurt, Christiansen is contemplating the prospect of working himself out of a job, selling the company he created, buying a sailboat, and with his wife Inge by his side, spending their retirement years sailing and windsurfing, mostly down in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
- A promising career that began in the world of supercomputers.
- The advent of personal computers that threw a monkey wrench into the supercomps long-range plans.
- Formation of his own U.S corporation, chartered in Germany, designed to take advantage of that situation.
The intervening 37 years between Christiansens graduation and the present have clearly been good ones.
Take a look at a bit more background:
Christiansen enrolled at then-North Dakota Agricultural College in the fall of 1959. He had come down to Fargo from the family farm near Flaxton to visit a sister who was attending business school, stayed overnight in a dorm and apparently liked what he saw.
As was probably true among right-thinking Scandinavian farm boys at the time, he joined the Lutheran Students Association, rising over the course of four years to its presidency and that of its regional organization. He had developed a close friendship with the LSAs young pastor and even considered the possibility of a career in the ministry. He also joined Sigma Phi Delta Fraternity and was chosen for membership in Blue Key.
Because two years of ROTC were mandated at all land-grant universities at the time, Lowell also considered the military as a possible calling, but a diagnosed upper respiratory condition vetoed that plan.
Spring 1963 was a sellers market for electrical engineering graduates with knowledge of how computers worked.
NDSU had no computer science program in 1963, Christiansen recalls, but engineering students were able to learn about them from hands-on experience
NDSU had an excellent reputation with computer companies. We were in demand. A tremendous number of NDSU graduates went to work for Control Data.
Control Data offered the young engineer two possibilities for employment: production or field service. Field service carried with it both the prospect of overseas travel and a 10 percent higher salary to compensate for the dislocation. Lowell chose the latter, and after eight months of training, was ready for an overseas assignment. It could have been anywhere, he recalls, Bombay or Australia
But they sent me to Paris. That was 37 years ago.
Two things happened during the 3 1/2 years Christiansen spent in Paris that would profoundly affect him for the rest of his life:
Two of his colleagues at CDC/Paris were young Frenchmen who had studied engineering at CalTech in the United States. Because married engineers tended to prefer the dayshift, bachelors were usually assigned to work at night. The three became close friends and frequently shared convivial midnight dinners. One of them had his own airplane, the other a family estate on Frances Atlantic coast. The trio spent time together flying and sailing off the coast of France.
And one Sunday at an after-service gathering of young Protestant expatriates, he met a 22-year-old blond art student from Germany. Inge Helsper was at the time, and still is, a Catholic, but in the tradition of starving Parisian artists, was attracted by the groups offer of free coffee and cookies. Back in Frankfurt, Inges parents had urged her to follow in her fathers footsteps and study medicine. But she had her heart set on being an artist, a pursuit her parents grudgingly allowed, but declined to bless with financial supportwhich may explain the appeal of free coffee and cookies.
It was a bit like one of those popular French movies of the 1960s. Lowell had bought a red sports car and managed to collide with someone on his first time out with Inge. It was a belief among young Americans in Paris that you had to destroy at least one car before learning to cope successfully with your fellow Parisian drivers.
On a double date with Lowell and his sailboat-owning French compatriot, Inge fell overboard and, even though he didnt know how to swim, Lowell jumped in to save her. Somehow, both managed to survive.
What I learned from them (his European friends), Lowell wistfully recalls, was that Americans live to work and Europeans work to live. Its clearly a philosophy hes adopted over the years.
In terms of employment history, the years between Lowell Christiansens arrival in Paris and the present day are a complicated recitation of rapid technological change.
The relationship between the United States and France was strained at the time (early 1960s), he recalls. The French wanted supercomputers and kept ordering them, but the U.S. refused to grant American companies an export license. Finally, just about the time I was assigned to Control Data in Paris, that policy was changed.
Because supercomputers were custom-made for their customers and each company created its own software, there were the inevitable bugs. As a consequence, bright young American engineers who knew how to de-bug them were much in demand in Europe.
Control Data had quickly become one of the worlds great business corporations, and was building the giant computers as fast as its facilities would allow. Prospects for the future seemed bright.
Then came the advent of the personal computer. The mighty mainframes, which had heralded the arrival of a whole new era, were on their way to the scrap yard.
Initially, companies like Control Data were somewhat able to roll with the punch. CDC had been making tape-based information storage units at the time Lowell joined the company, but it successfully adapted to switching to disk-type storage units when that technology arrived. In collaboration with its Minneapolis-based neighbor, Honeywell, CDC developed and manufactured removable storage disk drives.
They (CDCs European customers) were buying their disk drives from us, Lowell recalls, and when they failed, we offered service.
Lowell & Inge:
Inge, in the meantime, (playing hard to get) had finished her studies in Paris and gone back home to Frankfurt.
Luckily for the couples future plans, Frankfurt had become the focal point of Control Datas Original Equipment Manufacture servicing operations, which prompted Lowells transfer to the German city, and his reunion with Inge. The two were married there in 1968, and chose to honeymoon in the Canary Islands.
Predictably, in the fiercely competitive world of computer technology that evolved worldwide, there would be winners and losers. Companies such as Wang and Digital Equipment thrived on the strength of the burgeoning market for minis. But the by-then old guard companiesCDC, Honeywell and Sperry UNIVACwere headed for technological extinction. Back in Minneapolis, mighty Control Data began to be parceled off and sold. Initially, Lowell transferred to Seagate, which had bought CDCs disk-drive division. But handwriting on the wall told him perhaps it was time to launch his own company. That was just nine years ago.
Starting his own company, Lowell believes, gave him courage. I love it, he exclaims with enthusiasm. Im glad I got pushed. I love running my own company. But he also harbors an abiding sense of appreciation for the no-longer-in-existence organization that sent him to Paris in the first place. Control Data was very good to me, he muses. It gave me the chance to come to Europe.
CCC Computer Commodities GMBH, the company Lowell created, is headquartered in a quiet Frankfurt neighborhood that miraculously escaped the Allied carpet bombing of World War II, that virtually obliterated the historic citys heart.
According to Inge, one of the mansions in that neighborhood was appropriated as Dwight Eisenhowers Headquarters as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Because of a facility with languages, Inges father, after escaping from a Soviet prison camp in Siberia at the end of the war, became Eisenhowers personal translator. (Inges theory is that the Americans deliberately avoided bombing the great old neighborhood so that Ike could have one of the fine old houses for his headquarters.)
Initially, because many of Lowells fellow engineers had found themselves in similar predicaments, there was a lot of competition in the computer support business. ... but when they found they werent making millions, he recalls, most of them retired or moved on to other jobs. Today his full-time job and that of two part-time technicians is providing support, repair services and spare parts for former Control Data customers, of which there are still quite a few throughout Europe.
It may be stretching things a bit, but contemplating the history of Lowell Christiansens North Dakota family over the course of a just-completed century gives one a renewed appreciation of world history:
More than a century ago his Danish ancestors set sail for America, ultimately settling on a hard-scrabble piece of North Dakota land up by the Canadian border near the present-day hamlet of Flaxton. At the time the most modern piece of agricultural technology available to them was a deep-cutting plow pulled by a team of horses.
Roughly three quarters of a century later, a descendent of those North Dakota pioneers is back on the continent of Europe, dealing with high-tech computers. In a sense the Christiansens have come full circle over the course of three generationsEurope to America, America back to Europe.
Inge Helsper was born in Frankfurt in 1942, virtually at the height of World War II. Her father, who spoke excellent English, operated a pharmaceutical business in England. But when he returned to Germany when the war broke out, he was conscripted into the German army and put to work as an interpreter, interrogating prisoners of war.
Less than-one-year-old Inge and her mother were evacuated from Frankfurt to the countryside during the bombing, where her mother dug wild mushrooms for food.
Captured by Russian troops, her father was sent to Siberia, where he escaped back to Germany as the war ended using his facility with languages and following railroad lines at night. That was when the occupying Americans put him to work as Eisenhowers translator.
Although she is still a German citizen, Inge, (pronounced with a soft g and soft e), now Inge Helsper-Christiansen, also has Midwestern connections. A few years ago, someone in Minnesota, researching family genealogy, got in touch with Inge regarding the family name Helsper. One of her German ancestors, it turns out, had emigrated to Minnesota. Because of his military background, he became involved in Minnesotas Indian uprisings, later being elected the first territorial governor. In honor of his memory, Sept. 17 has been designated Helsper Day in Minnesota.
On a rainy November night in Frankfurt, the citys staid, formal Museum of Natural History was host to an art opening, featuring 20 of Frankfurts most prominent artists. The group is long-established. Many of the 20 are clearly into their seventh and eighth decades of life. Only in recent years have women artists been invited to membership in the exclusive group. So far, there are only two. Inge is one of the two. The night of the opening, an appreciative audience of several hundred well-appointed Frankfurters filled to overflowing the old Museums sizable auditorium, to hear detailed (in German of course) biographies of the 20 artists. Afterward, the crowd dispersed to its exhibition halls for a glass of wine, hors doeuvres, personal examinations of the art on display and visits with the artists. Inge Helsper-Christiansen is an accepted and well-regarded member of the historic German citys community of artists.
During her early years in Paris, Inge was primarily a representational artist, drawing and painting quite literal (and skillfully executed) depictions of real people and real things, most of them in nature. In more recent times, she has gravitated toward a more abstract style, but still, in her judgment, rooted in primarily natural forms.
Abstract is not abstract to me, she notes, It always grows out of reality. The volcanic landforms, shapes and colors of the island of Lanzarote in the Canaries provide the basis for much of her contemporary art.
I paint for my times, she says, not for 10, 20 or 50 years ago. Im glad I can sell, but if I couldnt, I would still have to do what I have to do.
Inge Helsper-Christiansen is clearly a busy and popular artist. In addition to the show at the Frankfurt Museum of History, she was working on prints for an upcoming artists Christmas show, and has contracted with the builders of a luxury hotel on the Canary Island of Lanzarote, to provide artwork for each of its numerous rooms.
The Canary Islands:
The rather stark, moonscape beauty of volcanic Lanzarote has become the subject of much of Inges art in recent years. She and Lowell bought property on the island back when it was thinly populated and primarily agriculturalplowing was, and still is, done with camels.
Now much more popular with European vacationers, Lanzarote has its own commercial airport and major luxury hotels. Still, there is hope that it will not become totally commercial in nature. It has been designated a biosphere by the United Nations because of its unique geology, flora and fauna and is protected by the government as a natural reserve.
Since he made that pilgrimage to Europe 37 years ago, Lowell Christiansen hasnt made it back to the family farm (still operated by his older brother) near Flaxton very often. If you were to meet him on that tiny North Dakota hamlets Main Street today, its doubtful that you would mistake him for a native. A close-cropped beard, lean and wiry, he doesnt much resemble your typical North Dakota farmer of Scandinavian extraction. He looks, well continental. He and Inge are very much a stylish European couple, who look and feel right at home.
And in answer to his mothers oft-asked question, except for occasional visits, hes probably not planning to come home anytime very soon.