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The Entrepreneur

Who was this man who handled Novell so differently? Why could he accomplish something with this organization that his five predecessors could not? Part of the answer lies in his background.

The Family

Ray’s grandparents, Hendrick and Grace Yff Noorda, were Dutch converts to the Mormon Church. They lived in Landsmeer, a suburb of Amsterdam. In 1894 their eleventh and youngest child, Bertus, was born to them when Hendrick and Grace were both in their 40s. He became Ray Noorda’s father.

Hendrick, a laborer by trade, was a devout and active member of the LDS Church. The Netherlands Mission had made numerous converts among the Dutch and several families had emigrated to Utah—their religious homeland in the far reaches of the American West. In the early 1900s Hendrick prayed for spiritual guidance, assembled his sons and daughters, and made plans to claim his destiny with his brethren in Zion.

In 1904 Hendrick and Grace packed their belongings and made the long journey to the Promised Land with all but one of their children. They came by steamer to New York through Ellis Island, then took the Union Pacific to Ogden, Utah.

The large Noorda family was itself a community with stout sons, young wives, and a flock of children, among them nine-year-old Bertus, now Bert. But the Noordas were also embraced by the Dutch Mormons who had preceded them to Utah and by the LDS Church itself. Although 5,000 miles from their native land the Noordas could feel at home in America. Language was no barrier in polyglot Utah, which teemed with European and Asian immigrants. Indeed, among their Dutch neighbors the Noordas could get along quite nicely without uttering a word of English.

Hendrick found work first in the freight department of the Union Pacific Railroad and subsequently as a janitor at a drugstore, the Ogden Wholesale Drug Company. His older sons were also employed in non-professional jobs, as a school custodian, a shift foreman for Utah Power and Light, a railroad inspector, and a baker. When Bert was old enough Hendrick got him a job at the drugstore as a stock clerk. Bert spent the next 43 years there.

On the first day of spring 1918, Bertus Noorda married Alida Vandenberg, a young woman who had been born in Ogden of Dutch parents. Soon after they were sealed to each other in the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, Bert was called up for military service.

Ten months after their wedding the couple’s first child, Bert Jr., was born. Other children followed: Marie; Raymond John (Ray) on June 19, 1924; and Edna. Alida’s parents owned a small rental property next door to their own home in Ogden and they offered this house to their daughter and son-in-law. Ray Noorda grew up as a part of a large extended family that included his maternal and paternal grandparents, numerous aunts and uncles, and dozens of cousins—many of whom lived in the same Ogden neighborhood.

The Early Years

Although Ray’s father was a drugstore clerk, the Noordas were in many respects a typical middle class family of the 1920s and 1930s. Bert Noorda was a scoutmaster and an active member of the LDS Church. Though money was tight he was able to provide for his wife and four children even through the days of the Depression. In 1938, when Ray was 14, Bert and Alida purchased their home from Alida’s parents. In an era when most Americans were renters the Noordas were property owners.

In a 1988 interview, Ray told a story about his childhood that was probably part apocryphal and part true. It serves the same purpose as the many stories about US Presidents; that is, the story of the youth demonstrates the virtues of the adult.

By the fourth grade Ray “appointed himself CEO of the local playground”[Footnote 1] in Ogden, Utah. At that time the kids ran their own programs and he was asked to organize a softball team for his own age group. First of all (as he later told the story) he made sure that the team was there. He figured out that they could win 50% of the games if they just had a full team.

Next Ray made sure the best players were there. He called them repeatedly and the night before the game he also phoned their mothers. He even went as far as to pick them up on his bicycle the next morning and wheel them over to the park. That’s when he learned how things got done. The experience made such an impression on him that it became a metaphor for his adult management style.

“I’d say more than anything else, it’s important to make sure that people get to work and that the best players have extra incentives. Finding the best players has been one of the most important things in the companies I’ve been in,” he explained.

Ray attended Ogden High School, a few blocks from his home. (A year behind him was Brent Scowcroft, who would serve as National Security Affairs Advisor under the first President Bush.) He played on the Ogden High varsity baseball team in his junior and senior years. After graduation in June 1942, he worked briefly as a truck driver for the OUR&D (Ogden Union Railway and Depot Company).

About this time, on a double date he met Lewena Taylor (called “Tye”—pronounced “Tie”), his future wife. Later that year, Ray joined the US Navy. It interrupted their courtship, but they corresponded during the four years that elapsed before they met again.

In fighting World War II, Ray was following the example of his older brother, Bert Jr., a private first class in the Army. On October 14, 1944, Bert was killed in action on Anguar, one of the Palau Islands near the Philippines. Bert left a widow and a son.

After the war, Ray considered his career options. He had learned about electrical devices in the service so from September 1946 till June 1949 he pursued electrical engineering studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He was graduated with a B.S. degree with High Honors.

He was 25 years old.

Footnote 1: The phrase appears in Ray’s obituary as printed in Britain’s The Independent:

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