From chords to computers

It could be said that Bob Chekoudjian’s life has been a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Whether it was getting his job at the University, falling in love with bike riding, meeting his wife or joining a band that would eventually open up for the Ramones at the old Mississippi Nights, Chekoudjian has been pretty fortuitous regarding major life events.

Rachel Keith, associate registrar at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, watches as Bob Chekoudjian examines a DVD player for use in an interactive display for an upcoming exhibit.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Chekoudjian, LAN engineer in Personal Computing Support Service (PCSS) in the Office of Information Services & Technology, has been a part of the University community for nearly seven years.

But his background gave no real indication of his career path at WUSTL.

He’s taken more fine arts classes than computer classes, and his educational background is pretty much all art-related. But he came into computers when they were first introduced, at a time when nobody had a computer background.

“Everybody got one and just played around with it to see what they could do with it,” he says. “It’s a very organic relationship that I have with computers in that regard. I didn’t get my information out of a book. I learned things by figuring it out.”

Chekoudjian is one of about eight full-time employees in his office tasked with keeping the University’s computers up to date and running smoothly. He boils his job description down to simply “computer support.”

His areas of responsibility include Office of Accounting Services, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum and the Office of Public Affairs.

“For the most part, given time, almost anyone can learn the ‘technical’ part of ‘technical support,'” says Garrie Burr, supervisor of technical services in Information Systems & Technology. “The ‘support’ part is more difficult because for that, you need plenty of patience — and generally, you cannot learn patience.

“He always keeps his cool and his sense of humor. Those of us involved in fixing problems especially appreciate this quality.”

‘School’s out for summer’

Coming out of what was then Webster College, Chekoudjian accepted a position at Webster Groves High School as a part-time aide to the media department, which had just received a grant to install a broadcast-quality television studio.

The gear was similar to the equipment he had used in college, so he applied for the job and was hired.

Over the course of the next 15 years, Chekoudjian’s responsibilities expanded to include teaching a yearbook course and some graphic arts courses.

That’s when he started dabbling in computers.

“We had some of the first computers in the school in the lab — the old Apple IIe,” he recalls. “One or two brainiacs in the school would come down and beg for time on the computer. This is when computers ran off two 5 1/4-inch floppies and cost 2,500 bucks, so your average family wouldn’t buy these.

“So it was cool. You had these kids who were valedictorians clamoring for time on the computers, so it was a fun environment to be working in.”

After awhile, he itched for something new but with no designs on a new job. He came back after his summer vacation and turned in his resignation, only knowing that his future work should be computer-related.

“It was sudden, but it was one of those things where I either had to do it now or be miserable for a year and I’m going to hate it and everyone is going to hate me,” he says.

“One thing I told myself is that I never wanted to be in that position — be somewhere I didn’t want to be, there’s too much at stake with the kids — you don’t want to screw them up.”

His then-girlfriend, now wife Mindy Mass, quit her job a month later, so in his words, they spent the next six months “goofing off, burning through our savings and getting to know each other.”

Then, just when the money started to run out, along came the University.

“I got a call asking if I wanted to come work here and I said, ‘Sure, why not?'” he says with a laugh.

‘Sheena is a punk rocker’

“Bob is always cool under pressure,” says Craig Luciano, systems engineer in PCSS. “He’s a consummate professional and he helps out co-workers even when he’s busy. He’s loved by everybody.

“He’s also certified cool because he was in a punk band in the ’70s and early ’80s.”

Ah yes, the punk band. Music is something Chekoudjian started 39 years ago, when his father decreed that all the kids in the family would play some sort of musical instrument.

Some brothers chose the accordion — he recently unearthed a 45-rpm record of them playing “Merrily We Row Along” — but he chose the electric guitar, then gravitated toward bass guitar as bass guitarists were harder to find.

It was a good choice. He went to audition for a band in his first year of college, and when he was done, another band said, “Hey, we’re starting a band, why don’t you come play with us?”

And so his involvement with The Retros was born. Fans of the local music scene in the late 1970s/early 1980s may remember The Retros as being a popular punk band, just as the genre was becoming more accepted.

“I think we had close to 100 songs,” Chekoudjian recalls. “We were together for maybe three years and you get tired of playing the same songs over and over again. In those days, you were playing to the same audience because the audience was somewhat limited back then.”

However, that audience knew what it liked. And when one of the granddaddies of the punk movement came to town, The Retros were ready.

Bob Chekoudjian and his wife, Mindy Mass, on vacation in Breckenridge, Colo.

“I called Mississippi Nights and said that we wanted to open for the Ramones,” Chekoudjian said. “Our reputation was out there, we would have been the natural band, from my perspective, to open. But we were told they were touring with an opening band.”

Fast-forward to the night before the show. Chekoudjian received a call at 12:30 a.m. asking if The Retros were still interested in opening. They were.

The Ramones roadies took everything and set The Retros up like they were the headliner, Chekoudjian recalls.

“Talk about your heroes living up to your expectations, that was it,” he says.

But heroism only goes so far sometimes.

“I still swear to this day, one of the songs of their next album was a rip-off of one of our songs,” Chekoudjian says with a laugh. “They were all three-chord songs back then, but I’m sticking to my story. They stole one of our songs!”

‘I want to ride my bicycle’

Chekoudjian’s other pastime is biking, and he discovered his love of riding on a trip to Austria in 1985.

His parents had emigrated from Austria; his mother died when he was 12, and the trip was the first time he had met any relatives on her side of the family.

It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.

“Everybody in the world was riding bikes!” he says. “They lived in a town of about 500 people, so it was easy to hop on a bike.

They’d go to the store almost daily and get fresh bread or produce. It was part of the culture, part of the fabric of everyday life and it really piqued my interest. It’s not kids playing on a bike, it’s people using a bike for life.

“I came back here and started riding a bike, reading and researching. And I started riding — my house to Ted Drewes, which was about three miles each way — I thought that was enough to earn my concrete when I got there. I learned otherwise later.”

Chekoudjian became more serious about riding later, to the point where he’d join Saturday morning rides that would sometimes cover 70 miles.

One day, a woman showed up.

“I don’t know how she found out about it, but she showed up at one of our rides,” he says. “I was just getting out of a relationship, and I found out later that she was just getting out of one.

“It was basically all guys, so a woman shows up and you don’t want to annoy them. I was attracted to her but I didn’t want to be aggressive, I wanted her to have fun and come back. And she rode very well, I was impressed — she was up in the front of the group. She was a good rider and I found out later she was new to cycling. It was pretty amazing.”

After three or four more rides, they started talking. One thing led to another and after five years of dating, Chekoudjian and Mindy were married Aug. 23, 2003.

“When you are that comfortable with someone right off the bat, you don’t want to believe it because you don’t want to be disappointed,” he says. “But we’d gotten to where we were going to be in life. I think what made it so good is that we were very comfortable with who we were then.”

Once again, they are getting comfortable — cautiously so — after a rough start to 2007. Mindy was diagnosed with breast cancer in January, but it was caught early and she finished the chemotherapy about two months ago.

“That’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever seen anybody deal with, but she kept her attitude positive,” he says. “When she gets herself into something, she researches it completely. She knew what options she was going to get before the doctor even gave her the options. She was on top of the game.”

Now, they are organizing a triathlon in Colorado to benefit the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the search for a cure for cancer. Still in its infancy, the target date is next July 26.

Once again, he’ll be in the right place at the right time.