Nerd nun

Forget the tape on the glasses. Forget the pocket protector. This nerd rides herd on tech within monastic walls.


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org ATCHISON — There’s no tape on her glasses or protector in her pocket.

Sister Diana Seago, OSB, is a nerd just the same.

A computer nerd, that is.

She even admits it on her blog, Nun Bytes (www.nunbytes.org), which she began a year ago. But her blog entry from Sept. 14 proves it:

“This morning right after prayers, I finished building a Core 2 Duo Intel desktop, Gigabyte mobo and 2 Gig RAM sweet, sweet computer. I wanted to replace an older computer in the computer room that was being a problem more than not. This is the first time I have used a Gigabyte mobo in about 6 years so there are a few new additions that are really handy. One of them is QFlash, a fairly easy way to flash BIOS. There is where the real story begins.”

And if you can follow that, you’re probably a computer nerd yourself.

Sister Diana actually has two official titles: She is both system administrator and director of computing at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison. Her fellow monastics, however, just call for Sister Diana when their computers are on the fritz.

“I fix problems when they arise,” she said. “The titles are kind of worthless. Nobody knows what they mean. They call me when the computers break.”

The Sisters don’t know what they’d do without Sister Diana, and, thankfully, they haven’t had to. She is considered very nearly indispensable.

“Keeping our network up and running [is her greatest achievement],” said Sister Linda Herndon, OSB, chairperson of the Benedictine mathematics and computer science department. “If things don’t work, she gets on it. Our network runs our employee time clocks, our door locks, the business office, and our medical records in long-term care.”

Often, the technical advice she imparts to other Sisters is simply to turn it OFF, and then ON. Rebooting a machine works wonders. Sometimes the solution is even easier than that.

One time Sister Diana took a CPU —that’s the central processing unit, or “the box” — away from the Mount’s computer room because the video card needed to be changed. While she was working on the unit, she got a call from the computer room.

“PC 3 won’t turn on,” said the Sister on the phone.

“I know,” Sister Diana told her. “I’ve got it here and I’m working on it. I’ll return it as soon as it’s fixed.”

No, the other Sister insisted, PC 3 was with her, and it still wouldn’t work.

Finally, Sister Diana left her workbench, brought the other Sister to her office and showed her PC 3’s CPU. Then, she took her to the computer room and showed her the CPUs of the other computers — housed neatly under the desks.

The other Sister had been trying to work with the disconnected keyboard and monitor.

From gearhead to cyber-whiz

Sister Diana can tear into a CPU with utter fearlessness, having developed a talent for repair on a different sort of machine altogether.

The family owned a succession of faltering beaters that needed lots of work, explained her mother Rita Seago, so the young Diana spent many an hour outside with her father Gordon, trying to keep the wheels from falling off the old heaps.

“She would hang out with her dad,” said her mother, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish in Kansas City, Kan. “He’d say, ‘You can look, but don’t touch,’ but she would pick up on things quickly anyway.”

Once, as a young adult, Sister Diana was driving between towns when she lost a screw on the fan belt housing. She hunted around the interior of the car until she found a screw the right size that wouldn’t be missed, and put it in the housing.

When she got the car to a mechanic in the next town, he took one look at her improvised repair and asked, “Would you like to have a job?”

She never took to housework, however, her mother recalls. As a teen she had a job at a soda shop, and she’d pay her kid brothers and sister to do her household work so she could go out and work in the yard.

As the oldest, Sister Diana had a major hand in helping her mother raise her siblings.

“She was the boss, that’s all there was to it,” said Rita. “I think that’s where some of her determination came from, because those little boys [and her sister] had to mind her.”

“But they all loved her,” she added. “Today, all five kids just can’t wait to get together.”

Sister Diana met her first desktop computer in the early 1980s while she was director of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and evangelization at St. Mary Parish in Tulsa, Okla.

“I saw some of the things [the associate pastor] was able to do with it, and I decided that computing was on the horizon,” she said. “I needed to know how to do it, so I saved my money and bought an HP Vectra ES2. It had a 10-meg hard drive and four megs of RAM.”

She had to teach herself DOS (disk operating system) in those pre-Windows days.

“I’m really glad to this day that I learned DOS, because there have been times even with Windows 2000 and XP that you have to go back into DOS to really be able to fix something properly,” said Sister Diana. That first computer has long since been recycled and replaced by a series of ever more sophisticated and powerful computers.

Currently, Sister Diana has two in her office. One is a custom PC clone, which she built herself. It features dual boot-up capabilities in Windows XP and Vista operating systems, 4 giga-bytes of RAM, and a 250-gigabyte SATA hard drive. The other is a little G5 iMac with one gigabyte of RAM.

Guess which one is her favorite.

“I’m a Mac user 100 percent,” she said. “If I had my druthers, I’d never, ever use a PC. I think Apple builds a better operating system. It’s more stable, as far as I’m concerned, and more versatile. I really like Macintosh.”

Cutting edge

Sister Diana prides herself on staying current — and that’s an understatement. The world’s first Web site was created in August 1991; Sister Diana had one built for Mount St. Scholastica by 1994. In that same year — when everyone else was mostly stringing copper — she supervised the installation of a fiber optic network at the Mount.

All in her spare time.

“Actually, I did this kind of thing part time while I worked as director of planned giving at Benedictine College [in 1994],” she said. “I asked my boss if I could work on creating a Web site for [the Mount] there because I didn’t have the equipment over here to do it. He said ‘yes,’ and thought it would be a great way for the women who went to Mount St. Scholastica to keep in touch.”

Her computer ministry keeps her constantly busy. Sister Diana is in charge of 94 computers, five networked printers, and another 28 stand-alone printers. Additionally, she builds and repairs computers and maintains three small wireless networks.

Interestingly, Sister Diana hasn’t logged a single hour in a computer classroom. She’s taught herself everything from DOS to Mac’s OS X Leopard, which she greeted with glee when it debuted last month.

“Every single day I spend an hour and a half reading online,” she said. “I read CNET news, MacFixIt.com, Apple Core, and some magazines.”

And she’s a big fan of “The Computer Guys” on the “Walt Bodine Show” on KCUR 89.3 FM.

“She says, ‘I can’t miss that program; those guys are so helpful,’” said Father George Seuferling, a friend and retired pastor.

All Sister Diana needs is a good set of instructions. When her mother was befuddled by all the gadgets that had to be installed in her new refrigerator, Sister Diana came over, gave the manual a scan, and quickly put it together.

“She said, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll figure it out,’” said Rita. “Before you knew it, that girl had everything straightened out. If she’s involved in something, I know everything will turn out all right.”

Sister Fix-It

Sister Diana’s troubleshooting reflects her personality — meticulous, methodical, and persistent.

“She’s pretty tenacious,” said Sister Susan Barber, OSB, the Mount’s coordinator of liturgical ministries. “When something’s not working right, she’ll keep trying to figure it out. She’ll just keep at it.

“Her tenacity is a real asset for her in her job. She doesn’t like working with numbers per se, but she has all these numbers memorized for all these different codes. It’s kind of paradoxical.”

Sister Linda has also long appreciated Sister Diana’s patient, methodical troubleshooting.

“One problem that’s really hard to figure out is when the RAM is corrupt,” said Sister Linda. “It can cause all kinds of other things to look bad, but it’s really the RAM. She will take out the hard drive, put in a new one; pick out a network card, see if that’s the problem; replace cables, see if that’s the problem; pick our RAM piece by piece, and see what happens.”

And Sister Diana’s meticulousness can be seen on her computer work table. Contrasted with the clutter of most other techies’ workbenches, hers is as ordered as a parade ground. No stray parts or stacks of manuals in sight.

“Clutter just drives me nuts,” said Sister Diana. “And I will work very diligently today to get that computer finished and the operating system installed, and off my desk before the day is over. When I walk in tomorrow morning, I don’t want to see a lot of clutter.”

It only takes her an hour to build a computer — a half hour for assembly; a half hour to load the operating system.

More than bits and bytes

But there’s another side to Sister Diana — a side that might have helped to lead Mama Seago’s tomboy to a monastery.

First, Sister Diana loves music. She plays harmonica, the dulcimer and guitar, and serves as a cantor as well. Her artistic sense extends to the visual as well. In addition to her blog, her Web site boasts some impressive original photography.

And it was Sister Diana’s love for literature that led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English from Mount St. Scholastica College, where she graduated from in 1971. To this day, she writes poetry, some of which has been published on the Mount’s Web site:

My memory begins in cold void.

Chaos, emptiness, absence . . .

surrounded me like sackcloth draped ‘round the sinner who begs for redemption. Suddenly, the void erupted into Time…

the Breath of Mercy rushed into me

and I burst forth from nothingness

into a universe of twinkling night

and blinding day.

(“Memoirs of Mother Earth,” Sister Diana Seago, OSB)

“She said poetry helps keep her centered,” said Sister Linda. By all accounts, in fact, Sister Diana is something of a Renaissance nun. And she is confident that if St. Benedict and St. Scholastica were to return today, they would approve of her computer work.

Sacrilege? Not at all.

Benedictines have always used whatever means were at hand to spread the Gospel message, said Sister Diana. She is simply following in the footsteps of her monastic fathers and mothers.

Benedict’s rule called for every monk to have a tablet and a pen, she explained — the best technology available back in the days before the printing press.

“That was the technology of the day,” said Sister Diana. “They were using that technology to evangelize people who might not otherwise have heard the Scriptures.

“And that’s what we are doing today.”

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