One of the first things people may notice upon meeting Kevin McGrath is that he is not from around here. The bow tie and suspenders usually give it away.
“I grew up in the south where bow ties and suspenders were not weird — here they are weird,” he says. Not that it concerns him. “I walked into class here the first day and heard the comment, “When did we hire a clown?’ I’m okay with that. I am pretty goofy in class, so the clown moniker actually works,” he laughs.
The distinctive look and the fact that bow ties don’t get in your lunch are part of their draw for him, but the habit started when he had a boss that paid him an extra dollar an hour if he would keep wearing a bow tie. Imagine an old-fashioned soda shop where employees wore black slacks, pink-striped shirts and long white aprons — the bow tie was the cherry on top.
Even better, the French pot ice cream and chocolates they sold were all made on site with natural ingredients. It was a dream job for a college student who loves great food. In fact, he admits that the food in Cincinnati was one of the reasons he wanted to go to college at Xavier University where he got his degree in computer science. “Some people travel to see new places. I travel to try new food,” he says.
But electronics has been his main passion. As a child he took apart household appliances to see how they worked. It was a hobby that got him in trouble when at age twelve he “blew up” the microwave trying to discover what situations made metal spark. “It took a while to pay back my parents for the cost of the microwave,” he says.
Later on, he realized that he also enjoys teaching, so he tutored in high school, was a teaching assistant as an undergraduate, and then continued on to graduate school in computer science at Indiana University where he was teaching his own classes.
“Teaching is immensely satisfying. It’s really fun watching people realize they have a skill that they didn't know they had,” he says.
In graduate school he focused on network security and systems — an area which blends computer science with electrical and computer engineering — and the courses he teaches, such as computer architecture, do as well.
His philosophy for teaching is “have fun while learning,” so he tries to keep everyone entertained even when the topic might be dry. “I don't want the students to fall sleep. I also don’t want to be a talking head, so I try to get them to interact with me as much is possible,” he says.
McGrath still enjoys taking electronics apart and has made a hobby of refurbishing old keyboards from the early 1980s to 1990s. On his office desk he has an 11-pound IBM Model F Terminal Keyboard from 1984. “I like the sound of it and the tactility,” he says.
When he made the move to become an instructor here, his movers were perplexed about why he would be transporting old keyboards across the country, but it’s become a profitable hobby since there are other keyboard enthusiasts that seek them out. In fact, the hobby helped to finance his last year in graduate school.
McGrath also moved his entire Lego space collection that he saved from his childhood, and is slowly putting the sets back together.
“I’ve been told that someday I’ll have to grow up past 12. I hope not. I still get excited about things like a 12-year old. I think things are cool,” he says.
—By Rachel Robertson