Rest In Peace, Jack Tramiel
Mr. Tramiel founded Commodore Business Machines, which gave us the VIC-20, Commodore 64, and Commodore 128, among others. I have a story to tell about him. He touched my life in such an obvious way, with such a hackable C64, and I got the chance to thank him in person for his vision.
I used to work in Silicon Valley. When I first went there, I had visions of rubbing elbows with personal computing luminaries like Jobs, Wozniak, Tramiel, and Bushnell. Let me tell you, working in a startup is not the way to make this happen. Of course, Nolan Bushnell doesn’t live in Silicon Valley, and Steve Jobs was busy running Apple, so they got scratched off my list. I did get to meet Steve Wozniak, simply because I was in the right place at the right time. But Jack Tramiel was… well, someone I wanted to meet badly enough to track down myself.
I had heard he still lived near Silicon Valley, but it was only by sheer luck that I came across a way to contact him (which I won’t share here). It was my last week to work before moving back east, and I worked up the courage to initiate contact with him. Immediately, I found out he was someone who valued what privacy he could get, so I had to explain why I wanted to meet him in person. He graciously agreed to meet me for Thursday lunch. That gave me two days to think about what I wanted to say to him, and to ask him.
Not that it mattered. I got there a little bit before he did, got shown to his customary booth, and started tripping over my own tongue as soon as he showed up. Any photos you’ve seen of him reflect exactly how he looked: somewhat rotund, mostly bald, clearly Jewish, and very contented with life. The ease with which he greeted me showed I wasn’t the first 37-year-old Commodore fanboi he’d ever met.
We ordered our meals, and began to chat. I tried to present myself as respectfully as I could, but… really, this was Jack Tramiel, and I was having lunch with him! He explained right away that he had just come from the gym, he always ate there after his workout, and that’s how the restaurant host knew where to seat me. He worked out three times a week, as a way to stay somewhat active, but he had a good life, he knew it, and it showed.
We talked about how he had learned what American business was about, and how he had learned about America. When I told him I was from Ohio, he piped up immediately with, “Ah, my favorite city is Toledo, Ohio. Even though I’ve never been there.” I knew he was a Holocaust survivor, but I didn’t know that an American from Toledo, Ohio was the first Allied soldier to greet him when the Ahlem labor camp was liberated. This soldier taught him to speak basic English, talking about Toledo, Ohio enough that it essentially became young Jacek’s understanding of what city life in the USA was like.
We talked about Commodore Business Machines, and how the design evolved from the early PET, through the VIC-20, C-64, and C-128. He had wanted economical designs from the beginning of his involvement with computers, and his products reflected that. He bore no ill will towards IBM, Apple, or any of the other competitors. It was all business; life is too short for animosity on any level. As the fortunes of CBM varied through time, that philosophy made it easier for him to stand aside and let history take its course. (I’ve heard that from a few other Holocaust survivors as well.)
We also talked a little politics. I asked him what he thought about the conservative/liberal polemic, and his response was simple: The government governs a nation, but it’s a nation of people. When a government prefers the nation over her citizens, they suffer as he suffered. He asserted that no form of government was completely immune to this hazard, but some are less suceptible to it.
I had a website that the time, and said something about what an incredible brag I would have for it. He demurred a little, and asked that I refrain from speaking publicly about having lunch with him, at least while he was alive. So I did.
The hour and a half I spent with Jack Tramiel didn’t change my life (that had happened 20 years earlier), but it was an opportunity that I am wonderfully, incredibly grateful to have received. The Commodore 64 that he spearheaded, let me hone so much foundational knowledge about computers. It was a tool, something that so many others taught me to appreciate. I owed my life in Silicon Valley to him, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to thank him in person for it.