Milt Koosman, the recently-retired founder and long-time president of the Computer learning Center at Ewing.

by Cara Latham

Just as the personal computer changed communication, business and the way of life around the globe when it arrived in households across America in the late 1980s, the Computer Learning Center at Ewing was, in its own way, revolutionary when it first opened some 20 years ago.

The first of its kind in the area, the center, which still operates out of the Ewing Senior Center on Lower Ferry Road, has offered computer courses to seniors and mature adults since 1993. It was such a unique offering at the time that New Jersey Governor Jim Florio attended its opening, and the center itself received written recognition from the president of the United States.

Over time, as computers evolved, so did the center, which currently offers nearly 30 different courses, eight of which are dedicated to the iPad to keep up with the changing times. Now, the center is undergoing another transition, as its founder and longtime president, Milton Koosman, has retired and moved to Naples, Florida.

For Koosman, the center’s impact on the area was much greater than he originally anticipated, but its courses continue to be popular after his departure. After all, it was Koosman’s own personal experience — or initial lack thereof — with a computer in the 19080s that eventually led to the center’s founding.

When Koosman retired in 1981 from his job as a chemical engineer with Western Electric, the manufacturing arm and supplier to AT&T from 1881 to 1995, the personal computer as it exists today had not yet been invented. One computer usually spanned rooms in length, had only limited functionality and cost many thousands of dollars.

While Koosman had often thought about buying a personal computer and teaching himself how to use it, the hefty price tag initially prevented him from seriously considering the purchase. Later in the 1980s, though, Koosman, who had been volunteering with the Telephone Pioneers of America, a non-profit charitable organization run by current and former AT&T employee volunteers, attended one of the group’s auctions.

A computer was an item on the list. As it turned out, Koosman placed a bid, won the auction, and took his new computer (running on a text-based operating system known as DOS) home to test it out.

“I brought it home, plugged it in, it lit up, and I said, ‘OK, it works,’” Koosman recalls. “Then I turned it off because I had no idea how to use it. Every day, I would say, ‘Tomorrow, I will sit down and learn the computer.’ After a few weeks, I finally sat down, turned it on, and I saw the little cursor blinking away. I had no idea what to do next. It was a terrible, terrible feeling.”

But Koosman was determined. He purchased and read books and finally got hooked. Eventually, he sent his first email to someone in California and received an answer within minutes; he was blown away. And then the idea came to him.

“At that time, I was about 70 years old,” says Koosman. “I started thinking to myself, ‘Boy, if we could get senior citizens early enough where they could learn [how to use the computer], when they can’t hop in a car and run around anymore, they could use this at home.’”

While the idea was still in its infancy, Koosman had also been volunteering on the crisis intervention service, called Contact, run by Telephone Pioneers of America. He was charged with finding a computer to improve the workflow of the volunteers at Contact. He and another volunteer found a computer at one of AT&T’s locations and found someone to repair it for use at the hotline.

After successfully having the computer implemented at Contact, they found other broken and obsolete computers to repair for use at the hotline. Koosman and his repairman would return them to working order for re-use in other organizations.

It was at this time, Koosman had been reading about schools in other parts of the country that were designed to teach senior citizens computer literacy, dubbed SeniorNet. Koosman himself had been “learning through osmosis” through his work with the repairman and knew it was time to try to open a school in the area.

Armed with a grant from New Jersey Bell Telephone Company and 10 of the machines his repairman had fixed, he was able to work out an agreement with the senior center in Ewing to begin offering programs there.

He and other volunteers set up 10 computers in one of the rooms in the senior center, put a blurb in a local newspaper, and alerted residents to the new courses that were going to begin at the senior center. Within the first week that the blurb ran in the paper, 102 people had called to register for the courses.

“We continued on, and first thing you know, 20 years went by,” says Koosman.

In its first six months (through December, 1993) the center served 104 students (78 in Introduction to Computers, 19 in Word Processing and 7 in Spreadsheets), and there were still 105 people on the waiting list.

David Shinkfield, who has been volunteering with the Computer Learning Center at Ewing for about five years and is now taking over in Koosman’s absence, said the center’s success could not have been possible without Koosman’s dedication.

“He’s really been not just the brains but the political push to keep the organization running and to make sure he recruited the instructors we needed,” said Shinkfield. “He’s really been the driver and entrepreneur that kept the whole thing going.”

In the first couple of years people were taking the courses, it was a rarity if someone actually had a computer, Koosman said.

“But the people kept coming, and they started buying computers as well,” he said. “We added courses as they finished the introductory courses.”

The volunteers at the center began teaching very basic lessons about hardware and software and about what users could do with them. The list of courses grew over time to accommodate the changing technology, and to-date, the courses incorporate lessons on the latest technologies, including iPad operation, Facebook use, Gmail use, and others.

Originally, classes were offered free-of-charge, but with the growing demand and numbers of people on the wait list, Koosman and the volunteers decided it would be appropriate to charge small fees.

“Unfortunately, when you do something for nothing, it ends up not worth anything,” Koosman said. “We had a bunch of people on the waiting list at all times. The class would fill up immediately, but if someone offered [one of the students] to go out for a cup of coffee, they wouldn’t show up for the class.”

Initially, they charged $10 for a course with multiple sessions, and now the prices range from $5 for a single-session class to $15 for some multi-session courses. The idea is that the course is still affordable, but only people who are serious about learning computers will attend.

“They would lose it if they don’t show up, so they show up,” he said.

A team of volunteers has always run the center. There are instructors who run the classes, aided by “coaches” who walk around the classroom, helping the students while instructors are providing the lessons.

Koosman found his initial instructors by making a pitch to a few people who had been meeting up as part of a local Princeton computer group. Among those who volunteered were retired professionals and others who were willing to donate their time to teach the classes.

Joan Jones, who has volunteered with the center for over a decade and who serves as the center’s publicist, recalled Koosman’s persistence in growing the volunteer base.

“His leadership over the 20 years was absolutely stellar,” she said. “He was very involved, very personable. He had good rapport with people. We had people who really had no intention in being involved as volunteers, and they said ‘I don’t know how I got recruited, but now I’m here.”

The organization runs as an independent non-profit organization, although its classes are held in space at the Ewing Senior Center. Because of this, residents from any area can attend the classes.

Koosman said he is happy to transition the organization over to his successors. He finally decided to move to Florida after the death of his wife Rae in May. The couple lived in Ewing for 30 years, since shortly after his retirement.

Having grown up in Clifton, in a household with his parents (his father was a carpenter) and brother and sister. He enlisted in the Air Corps (the precursor to the United States Air Force) a year after the war began. He spent four years in England, Ireland and Germany, before coming home to return to work in a factory.

While working at the factory, he decided to go back to school at night, earning his bachelor’s degree from the Newark College of Engineering (now NJIT), and then his master’s from Stevens Institute of Technology.

As a chemical engineer, Koosman became a senior engineer with Western Electric and eventually was offered a position that required him to inspect company facilities around the nation.

When he retired, he decided to do some consulting, but found after the first year that he was happy being retired. That is when he married Rae, his second wife, and moved to Ewing and began his experience with the Telephone Pioneers of America.

Now Koosman, almost 91 years old, is looking forward to relaxing in the warm weather in Florida.

“I am down here in my little apartment, and I think I am perfectly happy,” he said.

Koosman’s legacy lives on at the center, as the programs continue to evolve and the monthly “Tips and Tricks” — free lectures open to the public that offer tips on a variety of computer-related subjects — continue to attract the people. And the best part of the service is that it remains affordable and offers an invaluable service to residents in the area, said Shinkfield.

“The benefit is that we’re all volunteers,” Shinkfield said. “I think that’s one of the main reasons we’ve been successful. We’ve got enough money from the small amount of fees we collect to every 7 to 8 years to replace the computers and keep them up to date.”

For more information about attending courses at the Computer Learning Center at Ewing, visit clcewing.org or call (609) 883-1776, ext. 6205.