Archive for March, 2008

Missing Jeanette

March 20, 2008

Jeanette died a month ago. There is a sense in which I barely knew her, but her memory is hard to shake. She was clearly the most intelligent and creative person I have ever met. The fact that she combined that without pretense or ego made her even more extraordinary.

I first met her when I was in my mid 30s and she in her early 20s when I was consulting for Hayes Microcomputers (the modem folks) and she worked there. She was more or less fresh out of college, and was a bit confused and aimless. She knew that she wanted to earn her own money, but was not sure how (although she did not need to: her grand parents invented the Popsicle, or some similar bizarre thing).

She had been a gifted athlete in high school, becoming a world-class gymnast, on the verge of Olympic dreams, at a time when Jimmy Carter decided that the US would not participate in the Russian Olympics. Her aspirations were dashed, as were those of many in her generation. Years of work vanished in the blink of an eye. She was more upset about the effect of this decision on her other gymnast friends, for whom other career paths were less certain. She certainly was not bitter about it: It was history. She just moved on from there.

Her experiences as a gymnast were unusual: traveling around the country, and even the world; training in isolation, with just a few close gymnast friends; a bit pampered, and out of touch with the social context of her peers. One of her friends fell badly and broke his back. She was aware of the price that some of her peers paid. It took a kind of quiet bravery, and absolute confidence to perform as she did, but it did not seem very unusual to her.

She then won a Merit Scholarship, and went to UCLA, both on that scholarship and with a diving scholarship. She claimed that both scholarships paid out, which I found to be bizarre. Perhaps I misunderstood her, or perhaps my recollection of the conversations is imprecise. She said that she made a profit on college. Not that the money mattered to her: it was just an example to her of how bizarre life could be at times.

She left college unsure of herself, both socially and professionally. The Jeanette I knew was an astonishing intellect, energetic and creative beyond anyone else I had met, but not yet sure of herself enough to press a point. I recall times when someone’s hard drive would fail, and Jeanette would sit down with a hex editor and reconstruct the files by hand, a task that amazes me to this day. Most people would have just given the data up as lost; she didn’t see the point of that.

And, especially at first, she found the personal interactions with the people at Hayes to be puzzling and annoying and anxiety provoking. She felt outside and awkward. She used to say to me “Jon, I’m not a People”. She never wore a dress; she always wore jeans and a tee shirt of some sort. And, while she was clearly very bright, she was not a leader. Yet.

We worked together for perhaps 9 months or so, during a time when I was commuting every week from Philadelphia to Atlanta. A small team of people (including Rob Nagler, Randy Bush, George Symons [Jeanette’s brother], and Roger Sumner) designed and implemented a communications program for Hayes, with Jeanette as the technical liaison to Hayes. It is the only project I’ve been on that came in on time, under budget, and over our performance specifications. The product was never used. We had meetings in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Oregon. I remember traveling with her and hanging out with her for days on end. At one Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto, I recall the rest of us being unable to finish some food, because it was so hot that it seemed as if our tongues had been flayed with razors; Jeanette calmly finished it all. And there was an astonishing sleep-walking incident where she went back to work, signed in, picked up a phone, signed out, and then walked home at night, and never remembered a thing. She didn’t believe me when I told her about it, right up until she went back to look at the log books.

When my professional relationship with Hayes ended, I lost track of Jeanette for quite a while. About five years later, she found herself on the East Coast with a car full of hardware, and no place to stay for the weekend, so she visited me in Philadelphia, on her way to what was then Bell Labs. She tried to explain to me what was in the car. Some sort of switch.

Perhaps five years later, she looked me up when she had some free time, and flew her plane up to Burlington, Vermont, to spend a weekend with me. By then, she was the Chief Technical Officer for Ascend Communications, which was quite an achievement, at least in my eyes. She said it was no big deal, and explained most of the technical stuff in a way that one might discuss how one cooked dinner or mowed the lawn. It was just not impressive to her. It was routine. She remained laid back, just a regular person, with no airs or pretense. We sat in front of my wood stove, talking until it was very, very late. She fell asleep on the stone floor, in her jeans.

At that point, she had more money than she knew what to do with. She once said that it was difficult to know how to spend the money. I assured her that I knew what to do with it! She asked what I would do. I explained that I would build a large indoor swimming pool, fill it with salt water and sea critters, and go swimming with corals and fishes all throughout the cold Vermont winters. I talked about building a house with a shop and a room to play guitar. Maybe even a fish tank that ran around the entire outside of the house, two feet by two feet by 200 feet, with different partitions to contain different kinds of specimens. When I ran out of steam, Jeanette simply asked “So, what would you do the second year?” Point made.

She had an apartment renovated in San Francisco (or was it Oakland? I never visited), and got a home in Lake Tahoe, and commuted back and forth by plane. There were original pieces of art in her home; she knew what they were, and why they were important, but she really didn’t care. Decorators told her it would look nice, so she agreed. The one thing she really loved was the radiant floor heat in the bathrooms! Always simple and down to earth.

We were talking about marriage at some point, and she said that she could imagine marrying someone, so long as they continued to have their own house. Since I, too, am a bit of a loner, that comment made more sense to me than not.

She took great pride in knowing that, by starting Ascend, she had allowed lots of people to achieve their financial dreams. She talked about how janitors now had the money to buy their own homes, and how she had helped put people through college. She did not believe in giving money to charitable organizations, but she believed deeply in helping those she knew, and who deserved help. She asked me if I was “ok”, and I assured her that I was. Satisfied, the conversation never returned there.

I never knew the powerful and connected Jeanette, the one who gave key note speeches at conventions, or who ran all of the technical decisions for a company worth billions of dollars. She told stories about watching football games with friends, and talking about buying the team when the coach made bad decisions. They actually could have done that. But they didn’t. I always wanted to meet those friends, curious if they remained as accessible as she did.

She was an accomplished pilot: flying across the country once or twice a month was not unusual at all; and she did that for decades. She started off with small propeller planes, but eventually switched over to jets, after she had made her money. There was talk about her coming out to pick me up for a week, and then flying me back, but that never happened.

The fact that she died in a plane crash has puzzled me ever since the event. I know how intelligent and competent she was. The idea that she made some simple mistake seems unlikely to me, although all of us can make mistakes, become distracted, or be too tired or upset to focus in an important moment. Flying a plane is not an activity with much tolerance for error. I don’t know what happened to her that night, but of all of the people I know, I would have trusted her as a pilot. Or, in fact, in just about any capacity.

I hadn’t seen her in 10 years or so, so it is puzzling how much I think about her, and miss her. She was a unique individual, and, in her own way, a loyal friend. I can only imagine the pleasure that she gave to her friends and co-workers. They must have had a total blast. I know that my time with her was special. Which may be why I remember her so strongly and fondly, even after all of these years.