James Obendorfer, longtime IBM exec, leaves unselfish legacy

James Obendorfer, a 32-year IBM veteran, died this week at age 86. He is being remembered as a great networker, unselfish leader and dedicated family man.

James Obendorfer, a longtime IBM executive, died this week at the age of 86. He leaves a legacy that goes far beyond any business unit he led or contract that he won.

Friends and colleagues described him as a gentlemen and a consummate networker who was hardworking and unselfish. And above all else, he was a man who loved and cherished his family.

Former IBM executive and Big Blue public sector leader Anne Altman described him as “humble beyond words.”

Obendorfer worked at IBM Federal Systems for 32 years after having graduated from West Point and serving five years in the Army. He retired after IBM sold its then-federal systems business to Loral in 1991 but returned to IBM as a part-time consultant.

He often served as IBM’s representative to industry and government groups such as AFCEA, AFFIRM, and ACT-IAC. He also consulted with other companies and remained active until about two years ago.

His networking skills are near-legendary. “He was LinkedIn before there was LinkedIn,” said Todd Ramsey, a former IBMer. “It was unbelievable how he developed relationships.”

If Obendorfer -- or "Obie" as many called him -- didn’t know a particular person, he’d find a way to connect you to him. And he didn’t make simple introductions.

“When he introduced you to someone, he didn’t just say your name,” Ramsey said. “He’d say, 'This is Todd, he really likes Ohio State.' He’d find some connection so that you had the start of a conversation.”

“He was a great believer in collaboration and the idea that we can achieve better outcomes by working together,” said Kenneth Allen, executive director of ACT-IAC. “Jim was quiet, courteous and treated everyone with respect.”

Obendorfer was always one to work behind the scenes. “It was never about him,” Ramsey said.

“He would rather raise up others for their contribution,” Altman said. “Countless people benefited from his behind the scenes advocacy on their behalf for positions, industry awards and recognition.”

The comments on his obituary on the DeVol Funeral Home webpage echo the remembrances that Ramsey, Altman and Allen shared with me.

“Jim was one of the first people in the Washington tech community to welcome me after 9/11,” wrote Steve Cooper, currently the CIO of the Commerce Department. “He was then and remains a friend and colleague who put others before himself.”

“He not only welcomed me to the tech community in D.C., he helped me navigate it, partner with it, and understand it,” wrote Alan Balutis, a longtime government IT official and now a director in the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group. “I recall a mutual friend calling out to him once in a meeting, ‘Help us Obi-wan.’ And of course he did.”

And many commenters and people I spoke with mentioned his overriding dedication to his family.

“His love of country, of government service and of IBM was only surpassed by his love of God and his family,” Altman said.

Ramsey described getting Obendorfer’s annual Christmas card, which would include photos of his six children along with their families. Often each child and their respective family worn clothes of a specific color, which helped distinguish who went with whom but also created a fun and joyful card, Ramsey said.

“Your father's kindness and zest for life will live on in each of you. I will always remember him during my middle and high-school years as an accepting and caring father-like figure. Your loss is felt far and wide,” wrote Robert Stahl on the funeral home webpage.

"This man was able to manage a beautiful wife, 6 children, and 26 grandchildren and growing. He was an active participant in all our lives. Every single grandchild can attest to Poppy cheering them on at their sporting events. We are so blessed to have had such an involved Grandpa," wrote granddaughter Mariah Muhlbradt.

Obendorfer was born Jan. 8, 1931, in Youngstown, Ohio. He was married to Dolores Obendorfer for more than 63 years. She survives along with six children, 26 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Visitation is scheduled for Thursday night at the DeVol Funeral Home in Gaithersburg, Md. on Thursday, Oct. 26. A funeral mass will be held at Saint Raphael’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Md., at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 27. Burial will be at All Souls Cemetery in Germantown, Md.

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