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Bill Nedell

Filed under: Uncategorized — mgrusin at 12:11 am on Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Went to a memorial dinner for a friend tonight, Bill Nedell. I’ve only met a handful of people like him, a certified genius who wanted to change the world and had the talent and energy to do it. He loved flying, and loved life, and dove headfirst into everything he did.

Bill worked for NASA back when they took the Aeronautics in their name seriously. He revolutionized air-traffic control software, and then left to pursue his dream of making an airplane for everyone, one that used advanced software to make it easy enough for anyone to fly. (His initial project towards this goal was to make a box that could be installed in an aircraft that had just one big red button on it. If you hit the button the box would immediately take over and safely land the plane at the nearest airport.) He and his wife Susan (just as brilliant, just as nice, not quite as intense) owned a small company in Boulder which did this and other work. I worked with them the summer of 2001 on a tiny unmanned airplane that they’d use to gather weather data, but was also unofficially testing out the core software that would eventually run Bill’s dream. The first time I met Bill, I dressed up nicely for a formal meeting. He came jogging in in a runner’s tank top and shorts, drenched with sweat. He sat down, toweled off, and started right in on the technical details he needed help on. I was very impressed by his philosophy of what was really important, and his refusal to do what wasn’t. I also remember Susan asking me how much money I wanted to make. I threw out a number. She said that’s not enough, and threw out a bigger number. This is the kind of people they were.

Immediately after 9/11 most of their weather contracts were canceled as government money moved to homeland defense. They could have bought into that but refused to on karmic principles. They hung on for a bit but eventually had to sell the company. Bill was devastated by having to let his friends go, and said he’d never work for the government again. They moved to Florida (I was very sorry to see them leave Boulder), and they eventually lived on a 50′ catamaran. Bill made the catamaran into a technological wonder, even putting in a home theater because Susan loved movies. This year they decided to move back onto dry land so their daughter could go to a real high school. Susan got an executive position at a biofuels company in Boston, and Bill was working on a new aviation startup in Kansas (he liked the boat but really missed flying). He was an avid runner and biker, and sadly a few months ago he was killed by a drunk driver while riding his bike.

Bill touched a lot of people’s lives.  The memorial dinner was about 20 people, most from the old company, many of which I had met but hadn’t seen since 2001.  I was honored to be invited since I had only known Bill a little while, but Susan once said he and I were simpatico. (Aside from consulting for the company, I also helped Bill with his annual high-tech Halloween show in his front yard. It was the year 2001, so the theme was 2001 A Space Odyssey.)  Heard lots of great stories tonight, and feel for Susan and her two children’s enormous loss.  I wish I had been able to spend more time with him, Bill’s the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.

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