Dave Cutler ‘65 is MAD. And he wants you to be MAD, too – motivated, ambitious and driven. “It’s surprising what you can achieve, both as an individual and as a team, if you dig in and work hard,” the long-time supporter of Olivet College said recently.
Dave is revered throughout the computer industry for his development of several commercial operating systems, including Microsoft Windows NT. Most of the world can’t even comprehend the “what and how” of operating systems, but Dave’s work ethic and high standards have made him one of the world’s top programmers. It’s his time at Olivet College that he credits for much of his tenacity, drive and determination in life.
He is as committed to his philanthropic endeavors as he is his work. Focusing his giving on organizations that provide a worthwhile societal benefit, Dave has invested philanthropically in the students of Olivet College for more than 20 years. And he’s not done yet. As a foundational donor to the Responsible Learners – Responsible Leaders: Olivet College 2020 and Beyond campaign, he’s set out to make sure students who are motivated, ambitious and driven have the opportunity to attend Olivet College for generations to come.
“I grew up in the late 1940s and 50s in a family that worked hard to make ends meet. My father was a low-level employee at Oldsmobile and my mother worked as a nurse for a local doctor,” Dave said. “In 1949, we moved from Lansing to the country and everything changed. Suddenly I was working every day to help grow food for the table and I became the wood cutter for the family stove.”
It’s these early life experiences that taught Dave that if he wanted something in life, he had to work hard to get it. He started earning a paycheck in junior high school, working over the years for a fertilizer company, as a farm hand, and even building barns. His friends couldn’t wait to graduate and close the door on high school, but not Dave. “I knew that getting out of school meant a lifetime of work. I wanted to enjoy high school life as long as possible,” he said with humor.
By 1960, college was becoming more of an option for young men and women from all socioeconomic backgrounds, but it was not an expectation, particularly with ample jobs in the auto industry and farming communities in and around Lansing. As a star athlete, however, Dave looked to college as a way to continue doing what he loved best – playing sports. But high school students did not receive the type of college counseling afforded students today, and with no guidance and little understanding of how to research college opportunities – let alone knowing how to pay for college – Dave accepted that he would go to work right out of high school. “My grades in high school were very good, but without a scholarship to pay for college I couldn’t go,” he said.
“That sounds grim,” Dave admits. “But, as fate would have it, the new football coach at Olivet College was Stu Parsell. He had been a coach at Dimondale High School, which was in the same league as DeWitt High School, and was impressed enough to recruit me to Olivet College.” Little did Dave know that an academic scholarship to a small college just 38 miles from home would be the first step down a path that would change his life – and the world we live in.
Dave appreciates the smallness of Olivet College, which allows for an inclusive and relationship-based community. This spirit of community makes it that much easier for students to experience firsthand the college’s mission of nurturing citizens who are individually and socially responsible. “I think 98 percent of going to college is the experience itself. It forms what you become the rest of your life. You can’t possibly learn all you need to know while attending college and the most important thing you can come away with is a life ethic for work, learning and the responsibility you have to take care of yourself,” Dave said.
Throughout high school, Dave was quick to learn that excellence in sports requires hard work, giving it your best effort and a dedication to winning. Unfortunately, he did not learn that same lesson in the classroom. A smart kid, Dave found he didn’t have to work very hard to make good grades. “I pretty much coasted through without ever having to crack a book or study after school,” Dave recalls. “That all changed in college where I quickly found I was starting out at a disadvantage, academically, having gone to a small, rural school. I quickly learned from my professors that they were there to help me learn and that I had to do a significant amount of work on my own without getting hand fed.”
One professor that had great influence on Dave was Louise Hanson. “I was a math major with a minor in physics. I took all kinds of mathematical courses from Louise in subject matters I didn’t even know existed in high school,” he said. “I had to dig out the answers and explanations from textbooks and other math students. I think learning this one skill is what made me so successful later in life.”
Dave’s favorite memory, however, is the 1961 football team that went 8-1. “In 1960, I showed up at the college in early August to play football and we suffered through a humiliating season with just a couple of wins and mostly defeats,” Dave recalls. “In the fall of 1961, we began an amazing journey to an unbelievable season. I was the starting quarterback and wouldn’t trade that year for anything.”
It’s this team – Dave’s lifelong friends – that turned him on to the idea of giving back to his alma mater. It started with a generous donation and his challenge to others to help fund what is now the Cutler Athletic Complex, which is dedicated to the 1961 football team. “Team sports are excellent teachers of life lessons on how to cooperate and get things done as a group,” Dave said.
Graduating in 1965, Dave eagerly began his professional career at DuPont in Delaware. Like most young graduates, his focus was on advancing his career. It would be 25 years before he would return to the Olivet College campus.
It was while at DuPont that Dave developed his lifelong interest and career in software and operating systems. He joined Digital Equipment Corporation in Massachusetts in 1971, and in 1988 he found himself in Seattle leading the development of a portable operating system for personal computers that became known as Windows NT.
Over his 52-year career, Dave has produced more than eight commercially successful systems. In 2016, he was named a Fellow of the Computer History Museum for his contributions to computer architecture, compilers, operating systems and software engineering, and in 2007 President George W. Bush presented him with the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation for designing and implementing the “industry standard” systems for real-time, personal, and server-based systems.
A Thinker and a Doer
It was a 1985 Homecoming event, however, that Dave ranks as one of his top life highlights, even above meeting the President of the United States: the reunion of the Olivet College 1960s football teams. “It was a short weekend, but it brought back many of the memories of the 1961 football season and how much I really enjoyed the company of friends and teammates,” he said. “I started going back to Olivet College every year at homecoming to see my old teammates George Pyne, Tom Nesbitt, Charles McPhail, Dominic Livedoti, Larry Spencer and many others.”
It was during these visits that Dave also got to know Olivet College board members, presidents, alumni and students, and learned how far the college had come since the early 1960s. It was coming home that reminded him of how special Olivet College is, and he decided he would do what he could to help advance the mission of his beloved alma mater. Over the years, Dave has generously helped fund athletic programs, the visual arts, the Adelphic Society, and student scholarships. He also established the The Cutler Fellowship in Math, Science and Computer Science. And his commitment to the current Responsible Learners – Responsible Leaders campaign is the largest ever by a single donor.
“At homecoming 2018, I was asked to give a little talk about why I continue to give to Olivet College after all these years. In the form of a fictional story I come back to Olivet College and as I drive up the hill, I anticipate seeing the campus, but I find that the college is gone. I start thinking about why the college is gone and the only thing I can think of is that people had become complacent and had not supported the college to the level required to ensure its continued success,” Dave says seriously. “My experience at Olivet College was so positive and the lifetime friendships I formed were so strong that I don’t want Olivet College to cease to exist. I don’t want to look back 150 years from now and say to myself, ‘You jerk, if you’d only given a little more the college would still be there.’”
The success of the Responsible Learners – Responsible Leaders: 2020 and Beyond campaign will ensure the future of Olivet College, and Dave understands its importance. As a leadership donor he knows how vital every dollar is to enhancing the strength, vitality and future of the college, which in turn benefits every student in immeasurable ways. “Every little bit helps. Small gifts tell the college and the students that you care.”
When asked what words of advice he’d give today’s college students, especially those who are first generation students, Dave said, “Be achievers and do your best in whatever you attempt in life. I like Fred Brooks’ words in the Mythical Man Month. He wrote, ‘There are thinkers and there are doers. Thinkers are a dime a dozen and very plentiful. Doers are rare and valuable. Thinker/doers, however, are very rare and the most valuable of all.’ So, I would also like to pass on a culture of people being doers.”
Without a doubt, Dave is a thinker and a doer – and he’s MAD – and that makes him a very rare gift to all who have the pleasure of knowing him.