Two weeks ago my dad died.
We had a year warning that day was coming, after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last July. We had more days with him than we expected. Which I was very grateful for.
My dad took our family out of poverty. He grew up in the projects in Brooklyn (which, I believe, are still there). He was the first to go to college and chose engineering almost by accident, which he writes about below. His first job out of college, after earning a PhD in electrical engineering and material science, was as an engineer at Ampex. He moved us across the country to a place none of us had heard of: Cupertino, California. This was in 1971. That move gave me an unbelievable amount of privilege which I’ve been thinking about a lot. Because Silicon Valley grew up around us, literally, I had a front-row seat from a very early age (I got a tour of Apple when it was only a building or two back when I was 13 in 1977. I was in the first computer club at Hyde Jr. High in Cupertino that same year. Apple started a mile away from my house, so close that I stole apricots from where many of its buildings now sit.
Funny, one of the things we actually did like talking about was companies. He watched CNBC right up to his death and enjoyed the stock market. One of his last things he did was put some money into a trust fund for our kids and put it all onto Tesla. That was about a month ago. Since then it has gone up about 40%. He always did do pretty well in the stock market.
I talked about that and him a bit in a video today on Twitter, I was so proud that he got to see my newest book, which definitely is the best one of my career, and explains why autonomous cars, robots, and augmented reality glasses will transform industries. Doing that work let me to believe Tesla would go way up, but it was my brother who convinced him to buy the kids Tesla. My dad always had a golden touch with stocks.
But if there’s one defining thing I remember always taking heat from my dad about it was that he wanted us to get a technical education because he saw just how much that changed his life. He was disappointed I chose journalism and economics to study when I went to University and later in life he turned after he saw how I turned that into a successful career.
That said, he wrote down just how important he sees education being and he wanted me to share that with everyone here. The rest of the story is that he went into the Army, learned all sorts of things including how radiation worked (which led him to 25 years of work on military satellites where he designed microelectronic circuits that were radiation resistant for Lockheed Missiles and Space Company) and he used the GI Bill which got him the support to go to college and, eventually, Rutgers University where he earned his PhD. I believe strongly that we need a new GI Bill to help retrain Americans and get them to go to University to learn the skills they need to support their families and our nation. Here’s his words about how a few small changes can make a huge change in one’s life:
I think attending college is such a potential life changing event that everyone who wants to go (and is mentally able) should be able to go although I would suggest Junior or Community Colleges as most students who don’t finish college drop out the first or second year. Two of my sons dropped out and enlisted in the service from 2 year colleges.
I considered how people get to college who are both poor and not motivated by family. No one in my family discussed the need or possibility of going to college nor even what kind of job I might go for. I realize that where you live has a tremendous effect on ones decision to go to college.
My parents were both the children of coal miners from the Pittston, PA, area who married and moved to New York City in 1935-6 for work. My father dropped out of school in the 8th grade and my mom graduated from high school.
My dad didn’t have a trade and so had odd jobs including cooking. I was born in 37 and my parents applied for an apartment at the new low income Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn. At the time they were the largest housing project in the US with room for thousands of residents. We moved into our apartment in 1939 (our building was 6 stories high with 5 entrances holding 30 families per entrance). It was a safe place to live and I used to frequently wander away and get lost (I was 3-4) and one time was found lying on a nearby shore sleeping. The police recommended putting my name/address on my clothes which solved the getting lost phase.
During the war my dad was trained and got a job as a machinist. My parents knew nothing about education or the educational system in NYC so I was enrolled at the local elementary school, PS27, where I spent 8-1/2 years, kindergarten through 8th grade (around 2nd grade, the NYC education system switched from starting classes in January and September to starting all classes in September and, thus, I skipped ahead a half year). I was not a great or serious student and I estimate that I was usually rated in the 3rd quartile and cannot remember ever failing a subject.
In 7th and 8th grade students who were taking the entrance exam for advanced high schools were given algebra on a voluntary basis after school. Since my parents and I didn’t have a clue about these schools, I didn’t volunteer. At the end of 8th grade, we were given a booklet containing all of the public high schools in NYC with the curriculum, subjects and general information about each. We were told which academic high school we would be sent to unless we selected another school. There were 64 public high schools in NYC in 1950 which included the special high schools requiring an entrance exam, vocational high schools and academic high schools.
After the war, my dad obtained a regular job as a machinist in Jersey City where he had to work nights. None of his coworkers wanted to be the union steward so my dad accepted it. This meant that although he was the most junior member of his group, he was immune from layoffs which really helped us financially.
I went to my assigned high school (called Manual Training HS although it was an academic high school) and took the classes I was assigned. A Puerto Rican friend who lived in the same building entrance as me, who started high school a year before me, talked me into joining the swimming team. This was one of those life changing moments as virtually everyone on the swim team became a life guard at one of the city’s pools or beaches. This was significant because every single lifeguard I worked with was planning on attending college and some were talking of attending that fall. Some of the classes I took required that I take a statewide test called the NY State Regents Exam. Test/Answer booklets were available which contained the tests given over the past 10 years. These interested me for some reason and I studied them for the 4 classes I took (biology, geometry, earth science and intermediate algebra) and did very well on these exams averaging 95%.
As I said we lived in low income public housing which had the requirement that you had to move if your income exceeded a certain amount. My parents income exceeded this amount and they were put on a waiting list for intermediate income housing. This list was not moving quickly enough for the housing authority and so we were given a 30 day notice to move or be evicted in June 1953, just prior to going into my senior year. We couldn’t find a satisfactory place in Brooklyn and so my parents decided to move to Jersey City since my dad’s job was there.
I was enrolled at Lincoln HS for my senior year and joined the swim team. New Jersey required an extra year of history to graduate so I had a full schedule with no optional classes. I quickly made some friends and had no difficulty passing the classes. I was unable to take Physics or Chemistry in high school due to my lack of knowledge of what might be important for the future and did not know about the College Board exams. The extraordinary thing about my high school is that Jersey City Junior College occupied the building at night, starting at 4pm and accepted any high school graduate from Jersey City, tuition free. In March of my senior year I finally figured out that I had essentially no salable skills and so decided to go to JCJC. I selected Pre Engineering as my field of study and started in September 1954.