When Thomas Savage arrived as a freshman on the campus of North Carolina A&T University, he might as well have been a thousand miles away from the farm he grew up on in Bertie County.
"I was very naîve when I came from the farm," he says. "Greensboro seemed like a big city to me." The town of Roxobel, where he grew up, had a population of 367, he says. He spent hot summer days farming cotton, soybeans, corn and peanuts, occasionally hiring himself out to neighboring farms. It's not what he wanted to do with his life, so he left home to study mechanical engineering. He got an A-1 draft notice while still in college. In 1973, he joined the Air Force, where training in computer technology led to a career at Hewlett Packard and IBM. He has passed on that training through years of community service, helping young people, elderly folks and everyone else get access to technology.
"I believe you need to always give back," Savage says. His tech skills are a big part of what he has to offer. He also believes it's an overlooked need in the community. "A lot of people think that the digital divide has closed some," Savage says, "but I think it's widened, because much more is being done on the Internet than before."
In the spring of 2000, Savage teamed up with Rick Leggett to launch the City-wide Technology Enrichment Program, or CTEP, which set up and maintained computer labs in 10 different community centers run by Durham Parks and Recreation. Leggett's nonprofit, Excellence By Choice, ran the program. Savage volunteered to refurbish used computers, set them up and install the network of servers to each workstation. "I had my full-time job and I was probably putting in 40 hours a week on this stuff, because I was taking them home. We had like 200 computers and a bunch of them didn't work, so you interchange parts." Eventually he had installed 12 to 14 computers in each of the centers. Leggett gathered volunteer instructors from area colleges to teach computer literacy and life skills training.
For several years Savage was the techie on call. "With used stuff you've always got little issues, things hanging up," he says. "I'd be at work sometimes and get a call from an instructor who would say this or that happened. So instead of going to eat lunch, I'd run over there to fix it and try to grab a sandwich on the way back."
"Tom was a most integral person in assisting us making that happen," Leggett says. "He's a wonderful person, one of the most wonderful people you will ever meet. He just does a tremendous amount to help people all over the Triangle area and as far as technology is concerned. I couldn't begin to tell you how much he has done and how the area has benefited from his volunteerism and his expertise and knowledge. Just based on a dollar amount value, it would be well over a quarter of a million dollars just for the CTEP program."
Eventually, Leggett was able to negotiate corporate donations of new computers, free Internet service and software. He also raised some money to pay for the IT services, but Savage wouldn't take it; he asked Leggett to hire another person to help him instead. The new equipment also saved a lot of time. "Right now, they'll call me when there's a major issue with something," Savage says, "but that's not very often."
CTEP is still active, though Leggett is no longer involved. Today it has more than 100 volunteers and 40 corporate and organizational sponsors. City leaders from Florida to New Zealand have looked to it as a model. "You see a major impact in what we've done and a lot of the things that we have put in place," Leggett says. "It's not about the technology; it's how you use the technology."
Savage's work has often been in the background, fixing the hardware rather than teaching the class. But he fondly observed the way students at the centers became more confident as they learned.
"An older lady, I remember her coming into class and she sits down and says, 'I don't know nothing, I don't know where to begin.' She was just scared to touch the keyboard." Six weeks later, he happened to be at the center during her graduation ceremony. "And I'm going to tell you, I have never seen such a big smile. I kind of had tears swelling up in my eyes because it was such a happy, happy look on her face. I remember her on the computer doing something and her computer kind of hung for a minute and she said, 'Something happened to my computer, and I know it's not me.' This was a lady who didn't want to touch it in the beginning. The guy comes over and says, 'Let's see here.' He looked at it for a little bit and said, 'I think you're right.' And she says, 'I know I'm right! I know what I'm doing!' It was just wonderful to see that. That's what drives me."
But he also saw people whose attitudes underscore the work that needs to be done. "One day, I was sitting in the classroom working and this kid was in the computer room and wanted to sign up for a class. His mom came in there and got him and says, 'No, you're playing basketball!' He says, 'But I want to work on the computer.' She pulled him out of there.
"Rick was in there too, and we looked at each other and said, 'That's the reason we need to do more of this and start educating our people,'" Savage says. "A lot of black families haven't had access to computers, so they don't know. I think they know more than they did five years ago. I see a big difference already--though still, it's scratching the surface, from my view."
At work, Savage volunteered for a company-sponsored program called National Black Family Technology Awareness Week. He traveled to Baltimore and Annapolis, volunteering his time to demonstrate IBM technology at public expos. Then in 2003, he helped to organize an annual event at the Lyon Park Community Center in Durham. "The main focus was to show people how to use technology to help themselves through life," Savage says. He set up a wireless Internet connection for the main room, where volunteers gave classes and demonstrations on how to use the Internet for researching health information or how to start a business. "It's just wonderful," Savage says. "I think the last one we had, there were close to 300 people."
Nicole Pride, who works in IBM's corporate learning department, says Savage always took the lead in organizing the black families week. "Tom is one of those volunteers who always stood out. You could always count on him; you don't have to ask. He's so calm and easygoing. People love to work with him. Tom's just a good person."
Savage noticed that many of the kids who'd finished taking classes at the community centers had nowhere to practice their new skills. They could visit the library or schedule computer time at the centers, but without computers at home, they couldn't really move ahead. So he joined another volunteer effort at Triangle United Way that had him pulling apart old machines and building new ones yet again. They were given away through drawings at the black families event.
Now that he's retired from IBM, Savage is spending more time at home and cutting back on his volunteering. His three sons are grown, and he and his wife are enjoying the empty nest.
Firmly rooted in the small-town life he grew up in, he has moved to a 20-acre farm in Person County and plans to grow organic vegetables and raise fish. He still goes back to Roxobel every fall to help with the harvest--and to fix some technical difficulties. "Everybody down home, just about, I've set up their computers," he says. "I just got a call yesterday from my cousin needing ink for her printer." He knows it's a bit much to offer to drive two and a half hours to help her, but he can't stop himself.
He's still the go-to geek, a reputation he hopes never to live down.