My View: Ken Olsen, a lifetime of science and faith

A public memorial service for the late Ken Olsen will be held at 3:30 p.m. today at Gordon College in Wenham.

These days, a normal routine at work or at home involves computers.

We log on, read an article, compose an email or draft a report. It's hard to imagine (or remember) the days when we didn't use a computer.

And if not for Ken Olsen, the brilliant computer scientist who died this year, we might not be nearly as productive each day as we are.

I think that would please Ken. As a rookie businessman and scientist in 1961, he joined the board of the small Christian liberal arts college where I am currently president. Like his friend, Tom Phillips, who worked at a company called Raytheon, and a then-little-known evangelist named Billy Graham, Ken's involvement on the Gordon College board had a simple purpose: He wanted young scientists to know they didn't have to abandon their faith to be good in their fields.

That was radical stuff, even heretical in some circles at the time, and still is. It's not that Ken Olsen crusaded for the marriage of faith and science, he lived it.

Those of us who knew him admired his talent and propensity to advance technology. But we were also impressed at how his faith spilled over into his life as a devoted family man, a visionary computer scientist and a generous entrepreneur.

He taught Sunday school at Park Street Church in Boston, where he'd become a member during his days as a student at MIT. He gathered men for prayer groups. He insisted throughout his long tenure as the co-founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) that his employees be treated as he himself wanted to be treated. And he hoped the technology they created together would always serve the common good.

Olsen saw science and Christianity as complimentary. And when he died on Feb. 6 of this year at age 84, it was clear that the legacy he left for us was the same as what he'd begun at Gordon back in 1961: A vision for truth grounded in scripture and explored in science.

Fortune Magazine once recognized Olsen as "the most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business," and he took his leadership role seriously.

In his early days of shaping the computer industry through DEC, Olsen often visited Gordon's campus to meet informally with science students or professors to talk about specific developments in computing. He'd drive the 30 or so minutes from Boston to help design new computer labs at the small campus. Sometimes he would drop off his latest prototype for Gordon students and scientists and then challenge them to "play around with this in the lab and let me know what you think."

He often gave of his own resources to help the college meet its financial goals. He asked tough questions that a growing institution needed to answer. But it was his love for seeing truth through both lenses that pushed us most.

"Science is more than a study of molecules and calculations; it is the love of knowledge and the continued search for the truth," Olsen wrote. "The study of the sciences promotes humility, leaving us with a clear sense that we will never understand all there is to know. At the same time, science provides a defense for truth, authenticates Christianity and stems from the nature of God."

Unlike some scientists today, as well as evangelicals, Olsen never saw a conflict between his Christian commitment and his embrace of scientific methods. It was never an either/or proposition for him, but always both/and. He was comfortable challenging us to understand how science and the Bible were two expressions of God's creativity. And we at Gordon — as well as other Christian institutions across the country — are still pursuing that goal.

In other words, Olsen helped move forward the discussion between the two. He could do that because his genius for computer science garnered so much respect.

He was inducted into multiple halls of fame including the National Inventor's Hall of Fame (1990) and the Computer History Museum (1996). He served on the boards of several prestigious organizations including the Computer Science and Engineering Board of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1993.

But because of his faith, Gordon was a natural recipient for his archives. An 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art science center that bears his name has redefined the center of our Wenham campus. His lasting impact on generations of science students at Gordon College is real and felt daily.

Though he deliberately avoided the spotlight, I believe the man's commitment to servant leadership is the reason for all he accomplished — and will continue to accomplish — through the current projects and research conducted in the Ken Olsen Science Center.

Olsen wanted to educate the next generation of Christians for the challenges of science and technology discovery, and he has.