Getting kicked out of class may have been the best thing that ever happened to Harold "Hal" Theiste.
It was the first day of school at the University of Minnesota, and Theiste was booted from a drafting class for talking without permission. It was a big deal, since the class was a prerequisite for all engineering students like Theiste. But when a counselor suggested that Theiste instead sign up for the university's new computer programming class, the math wizard discovered a whole new path.
Theiste, who wound up helping create the first software system for Control Data's first commercially successful computer, wound up spending nearly 30 years at the pioneering technology company. He ultimately parlayed those connections into a key leadership role at the U.S. Small Business Administration during the 1970s.
Theiste died Dec. 16 at the age of 82.
"I think he was a math genius," said Karin Cooper, one of Theiste's four daughters. "Even in his older age, he understood computers. He was always interested in where new technology could take us."
Theiste was born in Chicago and moved to the Twin Cities when his father, the Rev. Hans Theiste, became minister of Fairview Lutheran Church.
After graduating from the U with a science degree in 1957, Theiste worked briefly at Orr Engineering and General Mills before landing at Control Data in 1960. At the time, Control Data was still looking for its first major hit, according to a history of Minnesota's computing industry by Thomas Misa.
Theiste was part of a small group of programmers who helped create the operating system for Seymour Cray's groundbreaking CDC 1604, a 2,000-pound computer with transistors that sold for $1 million and was first used by the U.S. Navy to control fleet operations, according to colleague Roger Meyer, who also worked on the system.
When that kind of work was transferred to California because the company was having trouble hiring enough programmers in Minnesota, Theiste moved into management, working his way up to national account manager.
In 1977, Theiste was selected to oversee programs at the Small Business Administration, where he was a deputy administrator. During his four years at the agency, the SBA created its Office of Women's Business Ownership, which has provided billions of dollars in low-interest loans and other assistance to female-owned companies.
"Dad supported women in the workplace before it was widely accepted," Cooper said. "That was very important to me and my sisters. We all knew we could pursue whatever career we wanted, and we would be supported."
Theiste returned to Control Data after leaving the SBA, helping lead the company's community outreach efforts. Though he retired in 1990, Theiste remained active, penning a monthly business column through 2013 as part of the Service Corps of Retired Executives.
Beyond the corporate world, Theiste was deeply religious and remained involved with the Lutheran church his entire life. He spent 33 years on the Board of Regents for Bethany Lutheran College and held leadership roles in each congregation he belonged to across the country, according to family members. He and another Bethany alum were credited with raising the money for a massive stained glass window that was installed at Bethany's campus in 2015.
"His Christian faith was No. 1, and that is what inspired him to do what he did," said Elizabeth Davis, his oldest daughter. "It was so important to him when we were growing up that we had the habit of going to church. He prayed with us every night."
Survivors include Arlene Theiste, his wife of 61 years; two other daughters, Mary Farquhar and Laura Merriam, and seven grandchildren. Services have been held.