Technologist Don Cheeseman takes a life of adventure to the page
06, Apr, 2021
There are some lives whose moments seamlessly blend into fascinating stories on the page. When you took care of a lion cub during childhood, worked as an air-man maintaining warplanes in the ‘50s, spent six years as an educator in Zambia, and have countless other adventures to share, the stories aren’t in short supply.
Don Cheeseman, R.E.T. (Life), is a man who leads this kind of life. A magnet for the strange and wonderful, Cheeseman has spent the years since his retirement mining his past and writing short stories and articles about his exploits.
He now has 179 snapshots published in various outlets to show for it. His creative non-fiction work has been published by the Sourdough Chronicle, Whitehorse Star, various technologist newsletters (including ASET’s), NAIT’s newsletter and more.
A number of these stories have to do with the various places Cheeseman’s career in technology took him: Chiefly, Zambia.
Shortly after becoming the 327th member of ASET in 1970, Cheeseman was sent by the Canadian government to be a department head at what was then called the Zambia Institute of Technology (Now Copperbelt University). He also worked for the government of Canada in Thailand and taught at Stanford University.
Despite not doing much personal writing before retiring, Cheeseman one day found himself tasked by his mother with penning a family history. Over the next couple of decades, Cheeseman used his spare time to complete that history, which spanned over 700 pages. As mentioned, there was a lot to unpack.
The memorable moments started early. Growing up as a kid, Cheeseman briefly took care of a lion cub from the Calgary Zoo.
“In 1941 the war was going badly and most of the able-bodied staff had all left the Calgary Zoo, for war work,” he writes, in an anecdote on family pets.
“People were asked to look after and ‘tame’ baby animals, to get used to people. My mother and I looked after a male lion cub called Leo, while it was still small.”
This was only one case of caretaking a different kind of pet. Cheeseman had a robin he’d hatched from an egg, an African gray parrot named Pierre, and a hinge-backed turtle, among others.
Something that’s aided Cheeseman’s writing is a habit of taking notes relating to his career. “As a professional, I always kept a legal diary, not just who knows who, and who had an affair with who, but a legal one at work, all serial numbered pages and so on. And those have been good for going back and getting detail,” he says.
This eye for detail shines through in his writing. In his story, “A networking parable,” for instance, Cheeseman captures the minute aspects of the places and people he met in what he describes as “a strange networking exchange” with the chief of a small village in Zambia. Describing the time he fixed the chief’s radio and provided him with aspirin tablets for the pain of an old snake bite, Cheeseman was awarded an unexpected gift for his efforts (which won’t be revealed).
“Their ferric cores lay loose in the box. There were holes in the speaker’s diaphragm. The electric torch cells that originally powered the radio were growing green-grey beards and looked as though they had been dead for years,” Cheeseman writes.
“The Chief stepped back, smiled proudly and motioned for me to make it work. He sat contentedly sipping a bottle of pop, waiting for me to demonstrate my skills.”
As well as the stories of his adventures, Cheeseman’s writings also cover the more technical side of his career. In these tales, he describes how he tinkered with technological troubles, and figured out how to fix them.
Technical writing is no stranger to Cheeseman. If picking the name of a Canadian or international technical association or branch of government out of a hat, there’s a fair bet he’ll have done work for it. The organizations for which he’s written reports, standards or papers include the Canadian Standards Association, Federal Communications Commission, Telecommunications Industry Association and TAC, to name just a few.
On how he’s been able to land so many interesting jobs around the globe, Cheeseman chalks it up to having the right attitude.
“How I got into all these jobs was basically an attitude of: I might not know anything, but I always put my hand up and say, ‘Yeah I’ll do it.’ And I still am a bit that way,” he reflects. He also points to ASET’s inception and community as a resource that has assisted with his growth.
Since joining up with ASET, Cheeseman has been heavily involved in lending his expertise. He’s served on Council three times, chaired the R.E.T. committee for both ASET and APEGA, and taught ethics for ASET to people preparing to write professional practical exams. This has been a mutually beneficial process, as he says there’s always something learned from taking on these roles.
For instance, Cheeseman says that “every time you’re on Council, you get some lessons in management and lessons in governance, and I absorbed all of those, and they’ve most definitely made me a better manager and, well, leader of people.”
As a magnet for weird and wonderful encounters, Cheeseman has seen a lot in his day. Luckily for those who’ll get a chance to read his work, he sat down and wrote it all out.