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Jack Cole, creator of people locator, dead at 87

Cole was a businessman who used early computer technology to sort the world--or at least millions of the people in it--by street address.

    Jack Cole, a businessman who used early computer technology to sort the world--or at least millions of the people in it--by street address, creating a series of reverse directories that remain invaluable to detectives, debt collectors, telemarketers and anyone who needs to find someone, died on July 29 at his home in Spearfish Canyon, S.D. He was 87.

    The cause was cancer, his daughter, Susan Wright, said.

    Sixty years ago, Cole began publishing the Cole Directory, a set of reverse guides to various United States cities. Known familiarly as crisscross directories, Cole Directories list a city's residents by address and by telephone number.

    The first city directories in the United States were published in the 1780s. Though most were arranged alphabetically by last name, a few early ones were organized by street address. For the next century and a half, compilers of these directories trudged door to door, painstakingly recording the residents of every apartment in every building on every block in the city.

    What Cole did, starting in 1947, was to use IBM punch cards to streamline the process, turning an ordinary telephone book into what today would be called a searchable database. (Cole Directories, which cover about 200 cities, are now published in print and digital forms by the MetroGroup Corporation of Lincoln, Neb.)

    Cole's books, which quickly became a staple of public library reference shelves, were a boon to people in a range of fields: a direct-mail marketer could aim at customers in prime neighborhoods; a detective could press neighbors for the whereabouts of a deadbeat; a reporter on the trail of an ax murderer could phone the family next door to be told, "He was always such a quiet boy."

    Jack Ridnour Cole was born on February 12, 1920, in Lincoln. He earned an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Nebraska and afterward went to work for IBM.

    Moving to Dallas to work as an IBM sales representative, Cole hit upon the idea for his directory. He hired typists to keyboard the entire Dallas telephone book onto punch cards. Directories for other cities soon followed, with Cole drawing on census records, tax rolls and other data to supplement the information in the phone book.

    Cole's wife, the former Lois Keller, whom he married in 1941, died in 1997. Besides his daughter, Wright, of Prescott, Ariz., he is survived by two sons, Dana, of Lincoln, and Jeffrey, of La Quinta, Calif.; a sister, Patricia Cole Sinkey, of Lincoln; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

    After selling his directory business in 1973, Cole turned to other ventures, among them a chain of hunting and fishing lodges. In recent years, after retiring to a cabin in Spearfish Canyon that had been in his family since the 19th century, he became active in environmental causes.

    Among her father's effects in the cabin, Wright said, was a Cole Directory for Rapid City, S.D., some 50 miles away.