By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
He delivers it like fatherly advice: “Get with it, kiddo.”
In a New England accent, that’s the message Bill Sleeper shares. He sounds like the wise and witty granddad he is, but Sleeper’s prompt isn’t aimed at his two children, three grandchildren or six great-grandchildren.
At 96, this funny and dynamic man is talking to his contemporaries.
He loves his computer. He loves his iPhone. And he wants other seniors to get on board the technology train. Staying in close contact with loved ones — generations of them — is just one benefit Sleeper enjoys as he embraces the latest devices.
Sleeper lives in a gadget-filled apartment at Merrill Gardens senior community in Mill Creek. His how-to lessons for using touch-screen phones go far beyond the Mill Creek complex.
He spreads the word by visiting other Merrill Gardens communities around the Puget Sound area. A video of Sleeper’s “Get with it, kiddo” pep talk — it calls him the “Tech Whiz” — is on the Merrill Gardens company’s website. The Seattle-based company operates 56 retirement communities in nine states.
An electrical engineer, Sleeper worked until he was 75 for the Raytheon Company near Boston. He may be retired, but he’s busy enough that his daughter, Barb Sleeper, had to check his speaking schedule before inviting me for a visit with her dad.
Barb Sleeper said his tech talks have generated lots of interest. Merrill Gardens created handout pages, with a cartoon image of Sleeper, to help seniors learn how to use smart phones, and how technology can boost quality of life.
“He’s an idea man. He’s really cute,” said Barb Sleeper, who lives in the Mays Pond area and spends many hours with her father. “He bought the very first version of the iPhone. I taught him how to text. Now he’s like this expert,” she said.
Sleeper began using technology to reach out to family during a sad chapter in his life. He and his wife, Norma, moved here from Boston in 2004. She died in 2011 after a long struggle with cancer. They were married 66 years. For several years, Barb Sleeper said, he rarely left her side.
“He was absolutely patient with her,” Barb Sleeper said. “He sat by her side and took care of her. That’s when he started with his iPhone, to keep in contact with people.”
When I met Sleeper at his Mill Creek apartment Thursday, he had been out late the night before to speak to the Harvard Club of Seattle. A member of the Harvard University class of 1939, he earned a degree in physics.
His father, he said, was a wealthy attorney in Exeter, N.H., who disinherited him after he decided to quit Harvard Law School. Sleeper said that going to work and finding his own talents wasn’t easy, but it opened up new opportunities.
During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Quincy. Sleeper recalled that President Franklin Roosevelt was aboard the ship on his way to the Yalta Conference near the end of the war.
Sleeper married Norma in 1945. The family crisscrossed the country as his career in defense guidance systems took him to universities and companies. Before settling at Raytheon, he worked for the Lockheed Corp., General Electric, the Boeing Co., as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.
Last month, the Senior Services agency in Seattle honored Sleeper with its annual Inspire Positive Aging Award. “Bill’s understanding of technology is particularly impressive when one considers the fact that he was already 60 when Microsoft was formed,” the agency said in its announcement of the award.
And in October 2011, the website GeekWire featured Sleeper as a “Geek of the Week,” calling him a “technology evangelist and enthusiast.”
Born in 1915, Sleeper said Thursday that during his childhood food was kept cold by ice from a river. He remembers a childhood of freedom and exploration in rural New Hampshire.
“All these people around me, they could have so much fun if they just said yes,” he said. Patience and humor are keys to his lessons. Some seniors shy away from technology for fear of breaking something. “You can’t break it,” he said, adding that today’s preschoolers know how to use touch-screen devices.
He doesn’t spend all his time playing with tech toys. His son, Bill Sleeper, is an airline pilot who takes his father flying in vintage planes he owns.
In one of his videos, Sleeper shares sage words with those who might get a little too proficient with modern communication. He tells seniors to learn how to send instant messages to “all your kids and grandchildren.”
“You can bug ‘em a little bit, you know, but not too much,” he advises. “You’ve got to be very careful with it, not to overdo it.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.