My dad, Monroe, died last night. It was both brief and a long time coming. When my mom told me I was very angry. Our life together was not done. It was too soon. I want more time with him. I wanted to hug him again, and see his smile, mischievous still at 84.
My father had a life of adversity followed by prosperity earned through hard work and persistence. He was born color-blind. As a child in the 1930s, he had polio, and survived this crippling illness. He spent much of his childhood in hospitals where, unlike today, visiting was limited to just a few hours a week, so he saw little of his parents. As a boy, he went to Stuyvesant High School, in a tough neighborhood in New York City. He was subjected to the anti-Semitic taunts so common on schoolyards of the day.
His career was always in electronics. He got his degree in electrical engineering before there was a thing called electronics. He worked for the Monroe Calculator Company, and then Philco, which became Philco-Ford, Aeroneutronic Ford, Ford Aersopace and finally Loral Space Systems. The company name changed a half dozen times, but he never did. He was brilliant, inquisitive, creative and giving. He holds dozens of patents, many of them in a technology called harmonic radar. At Ford, in the 1960s, he worked on some of the first “demand” traffic lights using sensors in the ground to turn the light green where cars were waiting. Before this, all traffic lights were on timers and drivers had to wait through an entire cycle before proceeding.
Independently, he developed one of the world’s first x-y plotters, predecessor to some of of the first printers available for personal computers. He took this to several companies looking for investors. As a boy, he repaired tube radios in a shop in New York City. He eventually worked on some of the world’s first tube-based computers. He worked with tubes through the 1950s and 1960s and then miraculously made the leap to digital electronics, despite a 40-year plus legacy in analog technology. He became an expert on microprocessor design and lectured to many groups on the topic. in 1977, he brought home a primitive computer in a briefcase, and showed me how to program it (no screen, no keyboard, no removable media) so that it would play the song “Daisy” by creating interference between the channels on an FM radio.
My dad had the coolest jobs. At Ford, he worked on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and had a BART hardhat and credentials. He took me behind the scenes and inside the BART control tower. He worked for the city of San Jose as a technology transfer agent, evaluating technology purchases for the city. His office was full of samples in the form of traffic lights, emergency call boxes, police sirens and street lights.
Also in 1977, he was laid off from Ford Aerospace. He was 50. Through a friend he learned of a crying need for bar code scanners in the library industry, so he set about designing one. He began selling these and was, after a couple years of hard work and ingenuity, making more money than Ford had ever paid him. He bootstrapped his company, TPS Electronics, from $0 to $600K in revenue with only his own savings. The company eventually reached $3M in revenue.
Growing up, until we were in our teens, our family managed to do all the things “typical” American families did, like trips to Disneyland and the Grand Canyon, and to Europe. Pizza. Company picnics (which were a huge deal in the 60s) at places like the now defunct Frontier Village in San Jose. In between, I would go with my father to the San Jose Flea Market, to electronic flea markets and to auctions. He was often the auctioneer, and as always I loved seeing my father doing something he was really good at, as the center of attention and the one everyone else was looking to. Up until the practically the moment of his death, there was an endless parade of people who had worked with or for my dad over the years, and they have all told me for as long as I can recall that he was the best boss they ever had.
In 1990, I took over his company, but he continued to be an advisor. He found he still had too much time on his hands and he was driven by the need to engineer, so he volunteered at the VA Hospital in Menlo Park to work on technology to assist handicapped patients. While he was at TPS, he had invented a Macintosh/PC interface for quadriplegics that used a rubber tube people could breathe in and out of, such that little in or out puffs of air could take the place of a conventional computer mouse. He did this not to sell it, but because he felt like it, and gave devices and plans to anyone who wanted them. He built on this work while he was volunteering at the VA, and became so invaluable, they gave him an office and a title and eventually a long-term consulting contract. In his 60s and 70s he was still inventing and engineering and improving people’s lives every day.
At the same time, he also developed an interest in using a Macintosh as the interface for earlier, primitive technology. He designed an interface for this purpose and soon had a Mac acting as the keyboard for a 1940s Lynotype casting machine and a Monotype casting machine of roughly the same period. He started on a project to use a Mac to send images to a Jacquard (embroidery) loom, but didn’t complete it. He just might have been the world’s first steampunk.
His life was about figuring things out. About learning at an amazing rate and assimilating that knowledge to do things that hadn’t been done before, or even thought of. He was the same way with his health and with the health of his family. When my son was diagnosed at the age of six with kidney stones, my father spent hours reading journals at Stanford University library to learn the disease inside out, and then he turned to the Web. He eventually became more knowledgeable than most urologists and located the nation’s expert on my son’s particular kind of kidney stones. That doctor still treats my son 21 years later.
His persistence in knowing every option, questioning every diagnosis and treatment, saved my sister’s life. When she was very young she became quite sick one weekend. My mom and dad took her to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with mumps. My parents took her home, and after some thought, my dad said, (something like) “Mumps? Bullshit!” He took her back to the hospital and it turned out she had pericarditis, an infection of the heart sac, and she was essentially dying. She ended up having open-heart surgery and through my father’s persistence and willingness to question everything, survived and has gone on to have a wonderful life and a family of her own.
This attitude carried my dad through many more travails of his own. He had heart failure twice, about 15 years apart, and each time had open heart surgery and had a pig valve replace his own failed valve. The doctors gave him a half dozen years to live each time. He lived nearly 30 years more instead. He also survived prostate cancer.
My dad’s life was more than technology and life-threatening illness. He never let any of this interfere with his curiosity and his love for his family. I learned from him that no adversity, no matter how extreme, could hold a person down too long if they chose to get back up and keep at it. He has been a rock for me and my family.
My dad was a wise ass, and a cynic, qualities he instilled in me along with my deep philosophy of anti-violence and my sense of social justice. He once said “the government and the phone company are fair game,” meaning some people may cease to deserve “fair” treatment. But otherwise, he saw the good in everything, including me.
He had a smile that could make the world right. When he smiled and told me everything would work out, I knew it would.
We all hear platitudes like “he’s in a better place,” “you’ll always have the memories,” and “this is how he wanted it to end.” That’s not how I feel. I want him back. We weren’t done with our life together. I love him more than anything in the world. I don’t want him taken from me. I am sure, from what people tell me, my thoughts will change. But today, just hours after his death, this is how I feel.