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The Brains of the Outfit : Dave Felt, Mensa's American Leader, Is Just a Low-Key, High-IQ Kind of Guy

August 29, 1991|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The most striking thing about Dave Felt is how average he is.

Felt, 48, is national head of Mensa, which requires that its members have IQs higher than 98% of the population.

But Felt doesn't control a multinational corporation, command a university staff or direct lab workers in scientific breakthroughs.

He works at Southern California Edison. In his spare time, Felt reads mysteries. He grows orchids. He likes Chinese food. And he lives in Sierra Madre, a town of 10,762 with no movie theater, five restaurants and a weekly newspaper.

"I like it quiet," Felt says.

A computer coordinator and program designer in Edison's Alhambra office, Felt takes a low-key approach to his job. "Probably in the professional ranks, I'm more or less average," he said.

How did the chubby, balding, bearded, soft-spoken man with glasses come to lead 55,000 of the nation's brainiest folk? "It just happened," Felt said, with his lopsided, bemused smile.

In truth, Felt spent 14 years in the Los Angeles County chapter. For three years, he was chairman of the chapter and regional vice chairman. He also served on the national board as secretary and second vice chairman before his election in June against an incumbent who did minimal campaigning, Felt said.

When he joined the organization in 1977, Felt had no ambitions to lead it. He joined because he thought it would be amusing to saunter by a co-worker who already belonged and casually toss his membership card on her desk.

But he wasn't sure he would even pass the Mensa qualifying exam. An engineer, he had gone to a trade school in Iowa and had been a "slightly above average" student all his life. So he told no one, not even his wife, that he was taking the test.

"I always thought that Mensa was this genius group," he said.

Far from it. On standard IQ tests, where 100 is average intelligence, the genius level begins at 170. For Mensa membership, a paltry 132 is required. It's a score, nonetheless, earned by only the top 2% of the population.

Mensa accepts more than 200 IQ tests, Felt said, each with its own qualifying score. For example, 1,250 for combined mathematics and verbal scores on the SAT test (a perfect score is 1,600) would qualify for Mensa membership, he said.

Felt declined to give his IQ, but said it is "lower than you might expect but high enough to join Mensa."

The founders of Mensa, which was formed in England in 1946, wanted to use their brains to solve world problems, said Lisa Trombetta, a spokeswoman for American Mensa Ltd., the group's U.S. branch. The word is Latin for table, and meant to signify the organization as "a round table of equals," Trombetta said. But over time, the group evolved into a purely social organization.

It now has 100,000 members in 100 countries. About 55,000 of them belong to chapters in 31-year-old American Mensa, which Felt leads. American Mensa's membership is about 65% male and 2% minority, Trombetta said. The Los Angeles County chapter is the country's third-largest, with 2,317 members.

Apart from promoting programs for gifted children and giving $50,000 in scholarships annually, American Mensa keeps to a strictly social agenda. Even though some members want to politicize the group, Felt said he believes members should use their intelligence to improve the world as "Mensa members, not Mensa." But Felt considers the most important and satisfying aspect of Mensa the "chitter-chat" at the monthly meetings held in members' homes. The conversation is more in-depth than most. "They don't talk about football games and cars," he said.

Through Mensa, Felt has met scientists, judges, police officers, engineers and computer workers whom he otherwise would not have. "You don't meet them in bars," he said.

While some Mensa members are high achievers professionally, others lead a calmer life, as he does, Felt said.

The son of a junior high school principal and an English teacher, Felt grew up in Spencer, Iowa, a burg of about 10,000. Sierra Madre's small-town atmosphere suits him perfectly, he said.

Widowed in 1977, he lives with his 22-year-old daughter, Lori, and an 18-year-old cat, Queenie, in a small house crammed with papers and books. They include his favorites, mystery author Sue Grafton and "The Cat Who . . . " mysteries by Lilian Jackson Braun. "I don't like long, complicated mysteries," he said.

Although he owned his own computer company for eight years, he now prefers being an Edison employee. He doesn't think that his high IQ means he should strive for more.

"I don't like lots of excitement in my life. I don't like lots of stress," he said. for

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