At 13, He's A Small Wonder At Spu -- Des Moines Boy Makes The Grade In Fencing, Too

Talk about a smarty-pants. Dinh Bowman, who reaches all of 5 feet and is only 13 years old, is taking computer classes at Seattle Pacific University and is pulling down a respectable B average.

In addition, the Des Moines boy is an accomplished fencer and will be competing in the national championships next month.

And - yes, there's more - he has his own home page and bulletin board on the World Wide Web.

All of this might be somewhat annoying if it weren't for the fact that Bowman is also pleasant and funny. His home page opens with a close-up picture of him in a full-throttle primal scream, followed by humorous exaggerations about his life.

He claims, for example, to live in the White House and spend most of his time pursuing architecture. "This is something I put together on one weekend from a mail-order kit," he writes, describing an accompanying picture. "The instructions were easy to follow, but I don't think I would ever get another one because the shipping charges are so high."

The picture? Stonehenge.

Bowman says his first computer experience came at about age 2. His mother, Hong Bowman, says it was closer to 3. Either way, that's before most kids can master a pencil, let alone tap commands onto a keyboard. No matter. Bowman showed an early aptitude that his parents encouraged. His father is a Boeing engineer and his mother a refugee from Vietnam who fled Saigon in 1975.

She has home-schooled her son since he was in third grade, after trying both public and private schools. She feared he wasn't being adequately challenged.

By the time he was 12, he craved more education than his mother could provide. "Dinh was crying," she says. "He couldn't wait. He couldn't stand not learning."

Bowman started calling the Computer and Information System (CIS) at SPU to learn more about the university's program.

Nobody there knew he was so young, and his voice was so soft that, when Bowman finally came to the school with his mother, the CIS staff thought she had been the one calling.

"I was really amazed," says Randy Macbeth, user-services manager for CIS. "He's less experienced than students, but he picks things up so fast that he'll turn around and explain things to people and their jaws will just drop."

Last week, for example, he was sent out to troubleshoot three computers with problems on the SPU campus.

"Dinh, have you done a hard-drive defrag?" asked his supervisor, microsystems analyst Dan Agun.

"Yes," Bowman replied politely - from beneath a desk where he was on hands and knees, replacing a computer's connecting cables.

Very little stumps him, even in the classes he attends. Although he's the youngest student in Business Programming and File Structures, for example, he's been getting grades of B or better. He's not officially enrolled at SPU, but, lacking a high-school diploma, his classroom success is needed to demonstrate his academic ability so he can enroll and register soon.

In the meantime, he volunteers at CIS and helps instruct SPU fencing students. He started the sport less than two years ago as a member of the Boeing Employees Fencing Club.

"He was an extremely fast starter," says club instructor Diana Noe. "In just under two years, he's been phenomenal in the fencing world."

In February, Bowman finished in the top third at the U.S. Junior Olympics in Louisville, Ky.

Next month, he travels to Cincinnati, Ohio, for the 1996 national championships.

The question is, will he be wearing the round, sheepskin hat that has become his trademark at SPU? Sheridan Martin, a student who works with Bowman at CIS, said she once asked him why he wore it and he told her he wanted a "distinguishing characteristic."

She laughed fondly at her young friend.

"I don't think he needs a distinguishing characteristic," she says. "He stands out all by himself."