SOMERVILLE, MASS. — (TC SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- He's the Ann Landers for computer klutzes, an unlikely high-tech hero who is on call 24 hours a day to assist those who don't know a modem from a motherboard.
The phone rings and Russ Walter leaps from a chair, ready to dole out computer advice. It's a typical call: a retired man from Cape Cod who begins the conversation, "I have a computer and I'm completely lost."
Mr. Walter patiently questions the man, runs over to a computer (he owns 45), tries to duplicate the problem, then determines that the caller's machine has been set up improperly and needs to be returned to the store.
Little seems believable about Russ Walter. The pudgy, balding, 43-year-old author could be making a fortune as a high-priced computer consultant. But he cares so little about money and so much about helping people overcome their fears about computers that he's willing to work for nothing.
On the cover of his zany, self-published book, "The Secret Guide to Computers," he lists his home telephone number and invites readers to ring him up "for FREE help."
"Phone me. I'm the author," the book commands on the first page of its 14th and latest edition. "My home phone number is 617-666-2666 . . .
People take the offer -- about 35 a day, thousands since he first began selling the book in the mid-1970s. They call from as far away as Australia and Beirut, hoping he'll solve their computer emergencies, recommend the best deal on computer equipment or suggest the best software to buy.
"He's really been one of the great allies for the bewildered consumer and the novice computer user," said Jonathan Rotenberg, chairman of the 30,000-member Boston Computer Society, the world's largest computer club.
"When we get absolutely stuck with a question that we can't answer, usually Russ is able to help."