His parents knew he was good in math, but when Mark E. Dean brought home his first algebra book, even they were a little skeptical. It's not that they doubted their son was bright -- but he was only in the first grade.
Now, Dean, 42, holds more than 30 patents or pending patents and is an IBM fellow, the company's highest technical ranking.
In 1997, he was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame for his work on the early personal computers.
This evening, he will be honored as the 2000 Black Engineer of the Year.
His refinements to the PC's internal communications set the industry standard, but he's working on an invention that he said will make the PC and nearly every other communication and entertainment device obsolete.
Dean has worked for International Business Machines Corp. since graduating at the top of his class from the University of Tennessee in 1979.
In his 20 years at Big Blue, he has advanced through the ranks and gained notoriety for many of his innovations. Most recently, he was the director of the IBM Austin Research Laboratory, where he helped develop the first 1,000 MHz processor, which should be available in a year to 18 months.
Now as fellow and a director of advanced technology, a position he's held for six months, Dean calls himself an "explorer."
As one of IBM's "idea men" he works independently on a host of pet projects, including the "electronic tablet."
Frustrated by the bulkiness of newspapers, Dean came up with the idea for a rugged, magazine-sized device that could download any electronic text, from newspapers to books.
The device would also be a DVD player, radio, wireless telephone and provide access to the Internet. It would recognize handwriting (written directly on the screen), be voice-activated and even talk back.
But while it could accomplish all of those things, Dean thinks the tablet could be produced cheaply enough so that every student could get one in lieu of books, and publications could give one to every person who buys a subscription.
As far out as the tablet may seem, Dean said it could be available soon.
"We are almost there. The only technology left to conquer is the display, we have the other pieces," Dean said. "We will see it pretty soon -- easily within 10 years."
With technology, "if you can talk about it, that means it's possible," he said.
And Dean is a man who meets his goals. He took only three years to complete his Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1992 -- remarkable, considering it usually takes at least five years.
"Mark Dean has changed the way we all live right now through his work in the development of the personal computer," said Tyrone Taborn, chairman and chief executive of Baltimore's Career Communications Group, which is sponsoring the awards ceremony tonight.
"Because of Mark Dean, we now have Silicon Valley billionaires; we have new industries and new technology."
Taborn said the black engineer awards are given "to make sure the world does not forget the contributions of African-Americans and so that our young people today will hear about people like Mark Dean."
Dean was born in Jefferson City, Tenn., where his first two years of schooling were spent in a segregated school and where the first four grades shared a classroom. In his first year, he was answering math questions intended for fourth-graders and tutoring the older kids.
After integration, he recalls, one white friend in sixth grade asked if he was really black. Dean said his friend had concluded he was too smart to be black.
"That was the problem -- the assumption about what blacks could do was tilted," Dean said.
That was the same bias Dean said he encountered when he first joined IBM, and a problem that has not completely disappeared.
"A lot of kids growing up today aren't told that you can be whatever you want to be," he said. "There may be obstacles, but there are no limits."
Dean said his parents, Barbara and James, planted the seed in him to become an engineer.
His mother was a teacher and social worker, his father was a dam supervisor with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Although the father was not formally educated, he was so mechanically gifted that he built a tractor from scratch. Dean's younger sister, Ophelia, is an engineer with Bell South.
Dean, who lives in Austin with his wife, Paula Bacon, gives the utmost importance to his role as mentor. He wants to sow the seeds that will get other young people interested in technology.
"If I didn't do anything else, the only thing that's important in all of my achievements is that I inspire someone else," he said. "There are a lot of African-Americans that don't know about the opportunities. They don't know that there are 300,000 [information technology] jobs that go unfilled that their child can fill and be smart enough to fill."
"If you don't know technology, no matter what you're doing, you're going to be left behind."
Black Engineer of the Year Awards
Black Engineer of the Year: Dr. Mark E. Dean, IBM Corp.
Most Promising Engineer: Sean D. Cummings, Lockheed Martin Corp.
Most Promising Engineer -- Government: Jacqueline L. Mims, NASA
Outstanding Technical Contribution -- Industry: Edward Ward, Dell Computer Corp. ; Andre J. Murphy, MITRE Corp.
Outstanding Technical Contribution -- Government: Michael J. Wardlaw, Naval Surface Warfare Center
Professional Achievement -- Government: William A. Brown Sr., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Professional Achievement -- Industry: Arnold J. Galloway, TRW Inc.; Norma Jean Clayton, Boeing Co.
Community Service: Art L. Merriweather, DaimlerChrysler Corp.; David Anderson Sr., Raytheon Co.
Career Achievement -- Industry: Roy T. Smith, DaimlerChrysler Corp.
Career Achievement -- Government: Thomas Wilson Jr., NASA
Technical Sales and Marketing: Yvonne Cager, Texas Instruments Inc.
GEM Student Leadership: Glenda Pettway, Georgia Institute of Technology
President's Award: Arnold W. Donald, Monsanto Corp.
Dean's Award: Lieutenant General Joe N. Ballard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
William H. Wiley Student Leadership: Danielle A. Hinton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Corporate Educational Leadership: Jacqueline G. Streat, Bell Atlantic Inc.
Affirmative Action: Bernard Dotson, Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America
GEM Alumnus: Johney B. Green, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Entrepreneur: James F. Garrett, SENTEL Corp.
Outstanding Alumnus Achievement: Peter J. Delfyett Jr., University of Central Florida; Gwendolyn E. Boyd, Johns Hopkins University/Applied Research Laboratories; Marshall G. Jones, Ph.D., General Electric Corporate Research and Development
Special Recognition Award Winners: Brian E. Bates, Electronic Data Systems; Tracy Collins, Cisco Systems Inc.; Marice L. Dantzler, Delphi Delco Electronics; Gregory B. Farmer, General Motors of Canata; Ira Grimmett, Hamilton Sundstrand; Richard S. Priestly, Corning Inc.; Felycia S. Washington, Raytheon Technical Services Co.