by CHRIS ROGERS
The job Dale Newcomb held in his first years at Merchants Bank does not exist anymore. He was a night-time computer operator, a human task during the days when computers did not operate themselves. It was 1971, and the rudimentary computers that processed bank transactions were the size of desks. Invisible to bank customers, Newcomb continues to work behind the scenes to make their transactions run smoothly. He adapted to decades of changing technology and remains a “go to” person for troubleshooting banking software. He will retire this year.
Newcomb’s current position, system analyst, involves managing the bank’s Automated Clearing House (ACH) transaction system. Across the U.S., ACH systems make paperless billing, electronic payments, and direct deposit paychecks possible, as well as a slew of other electronic transactions. This interbank relay is something many lay people know little about — and may not want to know about — but it must work.
“If your paycheck does not show up in the morning, the phones [here] start ringing at 7:45 a.m.,” said accounting specialist Amanda Kind, who has worked with Newcomb for the last 14 years. “You know who’s going to know the answer and solve it by 8 a.m.? That’s Dale.”
In 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive against U.S. troops in Vietnam, Newcomb started at Merchants Bank. He got married, got drafted, had a child, and spent the next two years in the Army, minding the East German border.
Back in the states, being a night-time computer operator was not a high-profile position. When Newcomb came in to the bank during daylight hours to get a loan, his co-workers had no clue who he was or where he worked. During a remodeling project, the bank was briefly patrolled by an armed guard, who confronted Newcomb with the muzzle of his rifle as Newcomb was getting off a long shift.
Newcomb ran the bank’s central computers decades before personal computers. He processed paper forms, rectangular IBM cards punched with holes to store data, and discs bigger than vinyl records. He learned COBOL, the first computer programming language in the U.S. that allowed different computer brands to operate the same code, and he helped navigate rapid changes in software and networks over the following decades. Newcomb kept up with technological advances through continuing education, and served for years in leadership roles for the Upper Midwest Automated Clearing House Association, a technology consortium for Midwestern banks. Merchants Bank Vice President for Core Banking Trudy Papenfuss described him as a point person for troubleshooting and problem solving.
“Change is just constant,” Newcomb said. He added, “The thing I’m going to miss is helping people find the information they’re looking for or find a solution to a problem they’re having … I like digging into stuff, finding out what was wrong with it, and if I can actually find a solution — pretty good! I feel pretty good about that.”
“He taught me so much about my job and researching and problem solving, but most importantly he taught me to slow down and think things through,” King stated.
Newcomb’s ability to learn and adapt to so many huge changes in technology is “a real tribute to Dale and his intelligence,” Merchants Bank President Greg Evans said. While Merchants tries hard to retain its employees, Evans continued, “Today, to have someone start with the company and have an expectation that they will be here 50 years from now — we’re just not going to see that going forward.” Merchants will miss his institutional knowledge, Evans added.
Newcomb is a master gardner, and maybe, after he retires, he will get to spend a little more time in the dirt.