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An Unexpected Connection

Jim Amidon — One of the great traditions of any Wabash Commencement is the awarding of honorary degrees. Over the years the College has honored heads of state, leaders in business, and acclaimed scholars from all over the world.

This year, Wabash honored its own — two alumni and one honorary alumnus. And while it doesn’t always work out quite so perfectly, this year’s recipients had a lot in common and they didn’t even know it.

Bruce Baker graduated from Wabash in 1965. He was particularly adept at Latin and Greek and had a solid understanding of hieroglyphics. He continued his education at several graduate programs, later taught at every level, then came up with an idea that would change the lives of tens of thousands of people.

While thinking about ways in which he might help a friend with cerebral palsy to better communicate, he began formulating an idea that would become Minspeak. Baker drew on his knowledge of Latin and Greek, hieroglyphics, and Mayan verbs to imagine how symbols or pictures with multiple meanings could create a visual language system for the severely disabled.

Long before the advent of laptop computers, Bruce Baker’s Minspeak device provided users with a keypad that stored a handful of small images or icons representing hundreds of words and sentences. Using early electronic voice technology, Baker was able to link the symbols to phrases, which could create audible responses.

For people unable to speak or with little muscle control over their fingers and hands, the ability to communicate effectively with just a few keystrokes opened up new worlds of possibilities.

Soon, his company, Semantic Compaction Systems, began to put Minspeak devices in the hands of disabled Americans from coast to coast. Conferences were begun, at which Baker would illustrate not only the value of Minspeak, but the value of the individuals using the device; he not only gave voice to the voiceless, he became their advocate for equal employment opportunities.

Today Minspeak is available in a dozen languages around the world and is being translated into scores of Asian languages, as well.

One of the other honorary degree recipients this year was Admiral Alex Miller, Wabash Class of 1971. Admiral Miller left Wabash for the United States Navy and 35 years later is still going strong.

Miller’s specialty also is communication, though in a far different arena. He spent most of his military career in intelligence, trying to break codes of our country’s enemies. His work was in signals intelligence and it took him on four submarine deployments and a handful of international assignments. You could call him a “master code breaker.”

When not breaking codes by analyzing captured transmissions, Admiral Miller was helping the National Security Agency reshape itself after the Cold War. As the chief of staff to the director of the NSA, Admiral Miller helped the Navy move its focus from the Soviet Union to global terrorism.

And it seems that when Admiral Miller gets a few days of leave, he returns to Wabash to speak to classes, attend reunions, or counsel young men on their careers.

Bruce Baker and Alex Miller knew of each other but did not know each other until last weekend. That’s when Wabash’s third honorary degree recipient, President Andy Ford, hosted a luncheon honoring the two distinguished men and their families. The luncheon allows the recipients to say a few words about what they do, why it’s important to them, and to introduce their families in attendance.

Immediately after the lunch, Admiral Miller made his way directly to Bruce Baker’s table, whipped out his business card, and extended his handshake. And what the Admiral said to the visionary communicator went something like this:

“Bruce, I’d like to have your card. We’ve got people at the National Security Agency who need to know you and need to know about your work.”

Some people referred the exchange as a perfect alumni network moment. Others simply said, “Only at Wabash.”

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