Rebecca West: Words & Music

The Last Straw

by Bob West

When mass merchandisers began selling Commodore home computers for less than I could buy them from the manufacturer as an authorized dealer, I packed up all of the remaining merchandise and shipped it back to Commodore and closed our computer store in 1984.

I had already begun developing Bible education software and a program to help public school teachers with grade management and reporting. I decided to work at home, put all my efforts into those projects, and sell by mail order. The name I gave my new business was Smoky Mountain Software. I ran small ads in church and school publications, exhibited and demonstrated our software at workshops, and published a direct mail newsletter, which I named Smoky Mountain SOFTWORDS.

Smoky Mountain Softwords newsletter

I just looked back at some issues of that newsletter and was impressed and amused by an article I wrote to introduce a new improved version of Grade Manager. You may be too young to remember the "Dick and Jane" story books we old folks learned to read when we were in the first grade, but maybe you will enjoy the way I used those characters to introduce the latest upgrade/version of my Grade Manager software.

Dick and Jane see Grade Manager 3

Remember Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot? Well, Dick and Jane have grown up. They're teachers now. Jane is at Hometown Middle School and Dick teaches biology at County Community College.

Last year, Jane bought a Commodore 64 and a program called GRADE MANAGER 2+. Jane was a little nervous at first. She had never used a computer before. But, she was pleasantly surprised at how easy and how quickly she could make the GRADE MANAGER do all those tiresome chores that used to take hours.

Jane enjoyed her new helper and wondered how she ever got along without it. With all the extra time she now had, she began to think of other nice things she wished the GRADE MANAGER could do. So, she sat down one day and wrote a letter to Smoky Mountain Software. Bob, the company president, appreciated her suggestions and decided to use them in a new version he was working on.

Dick took a look at GRADE MANAGER 2+. "I can't use this program," he told Bob. "I take an average of each student's lab assignments and let that equal 30% of the grade. The average of all quizzes equals 25% of the grade, and so on -- regardless of the number of assignments. Your program won't let me do that."

"Dick, we will put that option in our next version," Bob replied. "Thanks for telling us about your special needs."

Bob also received suggestions from other nice teachers. Sometimes before Bob went to sleep at night, an idea would pop into his head. He collected all these ideas to use in the new GRADE MANAGER program.

Bob had originally planned to rework GM2+. That would be quicker. But then he remembered that GRADE MANAGER 1 was designed back in 1981 for the VIC-20 with a tape player and 8k memory expansion. "GRADE MANAGER 2+ is just an improvement and expansion of that," Bob said to himself. "It is time to design a system of programs that will make full use of the Commodore 64!"

So, Bob designed a brand new program. He made sure it could do all the things teachers liked about GM2+. But he also added his new ideas and all the features teachers had asked for. He designed the screens so teachers would always know which file they're working on, with information and instructions at the bottom, and optional sound so they would always know what's happening, or what they should do next. He fixed it so they could change their minds and quit anything they started to do. One-key commands were used to give teachers more control with less effort. Bob packed the programs with routines to catch errors and help teachers correct them. He decided that reminders and warnings would sometimes be helpful. For example, if the file in memory has been changed in some way but not updated on the disk, and is about to be lost because a new file has been asked for, the teacher is asked if the modified file should be saved first.

Bob worked very hard on this for over 6 months. Then at last, with great excitement, he asked Dick and Jane to look at his new program, GRADE MANAGER 3!

Grade Manager Software cover
Grade Manager 3 User Manual cover

Dick was pleased that he could continue using his present grading methods while taking advantage of the speed and accuracy of automation.

Jane was thrilled to learn that the new program would even calculate the students' grades if she wished. After entering the assignment description, she could tell GM3 the total problems for that assignment. Then as she entered the number of wrong solutions for each student, GM3 would instantly figure the grade and record it in the student's record. It was comforting to know she could change anything in the files at any time, now or later.

Both liked the full-screen editing feature that allowed them to back up and correct mistakes. They also liked having GM3 do things they would normally have to do themselves. Like changing display and text colors with a press of a function key, formating and validating disks, or viewing the disk directory. All without leaving the program.

"I see this program will let me use existing student lists and grade tables for new files," Jane said. "That will save lots of time setting up files each year."

Dick noticed that their information could be reported by GM3 in more than 30 different ways. Some were illustrated by graphs, and multiple copies could be specified for any report.

He had been thinking about buying the new Commodore 128 and was glad to learn that GRADE MANAGER 3 will run on that too.

"Look!" Jane exclaimed. "There's a program on the disk to convert my GM2+ files to the new version. I don't have to wait until next year to use GM3!"

So, Jane happily accepted Bob's special offer for current users. "I want a copy, too!" said Dick.

Then Dick and Jane rushed off to share the good news with all their fellow teachers. And they computed happily ever after, knowing that Bob and Smoky Mountain Software would be there if they needed help.

That completes the article I wrote about Dick and Jane. I'm really proud of GRADE MANAGER 3 and the help I was able to offer teachers with that product. But I would not have been able to provide it without the encouragement and suggestions from many teachers, some of which became users of the program. I especially appreciate the help I received from Doug Moll. Doug was a Brevard, North Carolina, sixth grade teacher who encouraged me to create grade management software and gave me the initial information and suggestions I needed to provide something teachers could use. Then he field-tested Grade Manager 3 and wrote a review which was published in my newsletter. Other teachers encouraged me as well.

But soon the education market went with the IBM personal computer. For a number of reasons I chose not to follow. My Commodore software quickly became obsolete.

My other software products were Bible oriented.

Bob and his Bible software
Bob West shows one of the scenes from twelve applications of Christian living
included in his Bible program, "Scrambled Verses." (Photo by Fred Gore)

The photo above appeared on the cover of the January/February 1985 issue of Christian Computing. "Telling the Old Story with New Technology" by Fred Gore was the lead article in the magazine. Below are some excerpts.

"Bob West's Bible education began in a West Tennessee Sunday School during the 1930s.

"'We met in a classroom that doubled as a broom closet and storage room,' he recalls. 'The teacher would go down the row letting each student read a question and its answer from a quarterly. You could immediately determine and mark your question by counting those ahead of you. You can imagine how much attention we paid to the rest and how little we learned even from our own turn at reading.

"Bob is saddened that, with few exceptions, little has changed over the years.

"'I'm amazed at how teachers can take the message that was exciting enough to cause first century disciples to put their lives on the line and bore their classes to tears with it. It doesn't have to be that way,' Bob added. He is now using his experience and talents to provide help for parents and teachers.

"In 1969, Bob and his wife, Sylvia, established Bob West Publications, Inc., to develop and market Bible teaching aids. Last year, the corporation began doing business as Smoky Mountain Software...

"'The Commodore 64 is made to order for Bible software,' Bob said. 'It is inexpensive enough for millions of families, schools, and churches. Yet it is powerful enough to handle the color graphics, sound, music, and memory needs of comprehensive learning programs'...

"'Children and adults get totally involved with our programs. It's very encouraging to see children get caught up in the learning experience and not want to stop. It was a special joy to see my own three-year-old grandson arranging pictures of a Bible story in the correct order with one of our programs.

"West's efforts have not gone without criticism. A New England preacher wrote that 'the Bible is not, and has never been, a book for children.' In response, Bob called attention to Deuteronomy 6:7-9 where Moses stressed the importance of constant training of children in the Word of God using all methods... He also referred to 2 Timothy 3:15, where Paul, Jesus' apostle, said that the young evangelist, Timothy, had known the sacred writings from his childhood.'

"Words in their ads like 'fun' and 'exciting' have prompted claims by some who haven't seen the programs that Bob is using the Bible 'as a vehicle for the promotion of pop religion.' But, he will tell you that he is very serious in his development of true-to-the-Bible software, and is careful to give reverence to the Bible and to God who gave it to us. However, he also believes that people of all ages can actually enjoy (have 'fun') learning God's will, and rejoice in His service.

"Bob is now doing what he enjoys most --bringing together imagination, knowledge, and skills acquired in many areas over the years and using modern electronics to 'tell the old, old story...'

"Thinking back on that classroom in the 30s, he smiles. 'If we had been using Bible computer software back then, I might not have noticed we were in the broom closet.'"

The Bible software products I offered were "Hidden Words" (generates word search puzzles), "Scrambled Verses," "Bible Trip," "Bible Mates," "New Testament Jobs," "Old Testament Jobs," "Old Testament Guess Who," "Gospels Guess Who," "Acts Guess Who," and "Books of the Bible." I also advertised two programs which were developed by my brother Gaylon West -- "Sort'em 1: Creation/Flood/Baby Moses" and "Sort'em 2: Garden/Joseph/Bush."

All of this was a good learning experience and was no doubt helpful to some people, but unfortunately, neither Gaylon nor I sold enough to recover expenses, much less pay for the time expended on the projects.

Consequently, another door was closed. Another disappointment...

By now, I was very tired... I was discouraged... and I was ready to give up.

To be continued

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