Joseph Roizen Remembered

Note:  Continuing a little more with the family history theme, today’s post republishes the bio-sketch of Joe I presented at his memorial ceremony at San Francisco’s Dolby Theater on March 25th, 1989.

Dad-on-plane-1Welcome and, on behalf of the Roizen family, thank you for coming.  I’d like to tell you a little about Joe’s life.

Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation.  Well, not my dad!  Joe Roizen was a great lover of life, exuberant, enterprising, boundlessly energetic, responsible, passionate, optimistic and, when it was needed, even brave.

Joe was born on September 9th, 1923 in Kishinev, Romania — in the turbulent wake of the Russian Revolution.  His father, Boris, and his mother, Brana (whom we always knew as Betty), had only six months previously escaped from Russia across the Dnestr River from the family hometown of Mogilev-Podolsky.  Brana gave birth to Joe while waiting for her husband’s release from a Romanian jail, which jailing was the first and unfortunate consequence of their escape.

The story of the escape and passage to North America was one of family ties and help.  My father made the long sea voyage at age three months — already a world traveler!  The fare was paid by my grandmother’s oldest brother, Joseph Diamond, whom Dad called “Uncle Yasha,” and who had emigrated earlier to Philadelphia.  My grandfather’s sisters, the Hoffmans of New York, also helped get the family to the New World.

The family first went to Halifax, then Toronto, and finally ended up in St. Agathe, a resort town in the Laurentian Mountains and the location of a Jewish sanitarium that treated Joe’s father for T.B.  Boris died when my father was twelve, in 1935.   It is notable that my father was left fatherless at this tender age and in the depths of the great depression.  This hard reality surely galvanized his lifelong willingness to embrace responsibility and work hard.  Somehow, I can see him very clearly as one of those serious, energetic, idealistic, and very grateful young boys in the floppy caps of depression-era movies.  Joe’s mother ran a small boardinghouse in St. Agathe for about a decade — the site and context for my father’s early childhood, and the place he acquired his life-long love of skiing and mountain settings.  According to my cousin Susan Tiss’s wonderful biographical essay, Joe also skied 12 miles RT to and from elementary school — though maybe it only seemed like 12 miles!  Long friendships were formed in these childhood years — the Vosiviches and somebody named Stuart come to mind.   

Joe’s sister, my Aunt Molly, was born in 1930.  From about 1934 to 1938 my grandmother, her mother Sarah — a strong woman much respected in my family’s lore — and young Joe ran a small deli.  (My dad once mentioned that he got great pleasure out of some of the simplest things in life, including biting into a fresh apple from Safeway.  In the old pre-refigeration days, you needed to eat the worst edible apple in the barrel to protect the apple supply for the longest possible time.)

Joe was a good student.  Susan’s paper reported Joe’s main interests were in the sciences and (not surprisingly) electronics, and that he had two favorite teachers, Mr. Fuller, his science teacher, and Mr. Jacobsen, the principal, who encouraged and facilitated his studies.  School in St. Agathe ran through only the 9th grade and so his mother moved the family to Montreal in 1938 so that Joe could continue his education in high school.  But by the middle of the 10th grade financial straits obliged Joe to quit school and work full-time, coat-basting.  Thereafter, he managed to attend night school and took classes at Sir George Williams College.

With the war’s outbreak in 1939, my father (now 17) tried to lie about his age and join the Royal Canadian Air Force.  He didn’t succeed, but he did become the rear-seater radioman in testing Helldiver carrier fighterbombers as Fairchild.  As I recall, they ran two planes a day through their rigors.  In later years my father, who was not ordinarily a nostalgia buff, now and then used to describe for us (we sat in awed attention) the three worst crashes he’d had — including one in which the plane’s wing panels had not been screwed down well and began to fly off shortly after take-off.  It was his flying, oddly enough, that spawned his taste for Country & Western music.  He once told me that there was a very powerful C&W radio station in Virginia — so strong that they could zero the radio compass with it all the way up in Dorval.  And so, flight after flight, they rolled and dove and climbed listening to Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and all the rest.

One story I always remember from this period involved airplane fuel.  Gas was in short supply and rationed, and so crew people used to avail themselves of a few gallons of airplane fuel for their private cars now and then.  Like everybody else, my father did too, but he was caught and hauled into the commander’s office for punishment.  Asked if he’d stolen gas, he said “Yes.”  Just yes; he didn’t mention that everybody else was doing it or otherwise try to mitigate his guilt.  The commander knew that siphoning was commonplace and was impressed with my father’s unswerving sense of personal responsibility.  No punishment was ordered.  I always loved this story and deeply admired my father for the simple sense of honor it evidenced.  According to Molly, Joe also ferried airplanes to Newfoundland, on their way to Britain — though what Joe actually did was kept hush-hush so his mother wouldn’t know and worry.

Joe married his first wife and my mother, Gisela Holl, about this time and I myself came along in 1943 — when Joe was only two weeks past his own 20th birthday.  Immediately after the war, my father started two companies with Charlie Rosen and Solly Mann — Electrolabs, which started out making a diagnostic instrument for auto garages and ended up making intercoms, and Amplitrol, which made a pretty sophisticated bank alarm for its day.  Neither made enough money in the early years — and so my father was forced to abandon them soon after their founding — but both survive even today and Amplitrol was recently acquired by Honeywell.  According to Charlie, an incident prompted Joe’s and his abandonment of Amplitrol.  A big — even crucial — customer demanded a kickback for the next year’s purchases.  They told him to take a walk — and began looking for other fields of opportunity.  As Charlie noted, even as a very young man with no capital and no safety net, Joe had the energy and the guts to venture out on his own.

Mom, next to still-under-construction Tahoe cabin

Mom, next to still-under-construction Tahoe cabin

My brother, Peter, came along in 1946.  Joe next worked at Trans-Canada Airlines, again in radio.  As a perk, he got free air passes for vacation journeys.  In 1948, Joe and Doris (mom’s nickname) visited L.A.  They even got on the Gary Moore radio show and won a multi-course dinner at Graumann’s Chinese Restaurant in Hollywood.  What impressed them most was the weather.  They had left Montreal in snow and found L.A. in summer warmth.  They decided to move — with no waiting job, no house, no particular prospects save for Joe’s sense of energy, self-worth and employability.  This was classic Joe — move first (i.e., do what you want to do), and then use your wits and energy to make things work!

If people can be divided into givers and takers, then Joe was definitely a giver.  But the occasion of the move to California was also the occasion of a great and silent gift that he received from his sister Molly — thenceforth she would assume primary responsibility for watching out for their mother, Betty.  I know my father was profoundly grateful to Molly for this and during difficult times a little guilty for his absence.

Joe’s first L.A. job was with Pacific Mercury, which made TV sets for Sears; next he worked for KTLA, where he learned color TV technology first-hand.  He always worked evenings in the garage to earn a little extra for the things he and his family enjoyed.  In fact, to this day the smell of solder immediately brings me back to the days I’d stand eye-level at his garage workbench watching him working away, often whistling.

My dad and mom loved to pack up the car and see the sights — Yosemite, Sequoia National Park, Victoria, B.C.  Trips also exercised his lifelong love of photography.  We had an old 1947 Studebaker Commander in which my father had replaced the backseat and trunk with a fitted plywood platform and a foam-pad bed for my brother and me.  Nothing in the world was cozier than the long trips we went on, driving late into the night, my father’s face dimly lighted in the green dash lights, singing from his repertoire of road songs:  “With Someone Like You,” “Ferdinand the Bull,” “Wings of an Angel,” and many others.  On one such trip in 1951 they discovered Lake Tahoe.  They bought a quarter-acre lot with a terrific view, and my father had to rush home to repair a couple of TV sets in our garage in order to cover the downpayment check.  That too was classic Joe!

In the mid-1950s he and my mother built a cabin on this lot, bit by bit and scrap by scrap.  We made the long trips up Highway 395 every time he could get time off work.  In summertimes, Joe asked for extra unpaid vacation, but was denied.  Then, he simply quit his job every June and won it back again every September.  I always respected this strategy.  The cabin — which he described as a cigar box — slowly took shape.  They loved the view, and I’ll never forget the process of gingerly lugging the two huge 6’X8′ plateglass windows up the bumpy, dirt road to the cabin — nor the day the bulldozer came to shove giant builders off the house site, which I thought sure would roll all the way down the hillside and crush the Michaelson’s motel buildings or land in their pool.  Building the cabin was a real accomplishment and a memorable time.  My dad got us an outboard and my brother and I were allotted one tank of gas per day for its running all summer long — how sweet it was!  He made many friends up there — the Beldings, the Hidondos, the Michaelsons.  One year (1956 I’d guess), my family actually tried to winter at Tahoe, but without adequate income this experiment failed.  What strikes me now about this time was how young my father was — only 27 at the time he started the cabin.  In a sense he had a longer life than it may seem because he got such a big head start and never seemed to miss a minute.

Joe (left) in Moscow, 1959

Joe (left) in Moscow, 1959

The wearingly long L.A.-Tahoe drives caused Joe and Doris to look for a home closer to the lake.  First Joe tried the Sacramento Valley.  In 1956, we moved to Palo Alto; Joe began work at Ampex.  Joe made many contributions at Ampex, and Ampex was the place that allowed his technical creativity to blossom and also provided a worldwide set of colleagues that he later relied upon in his own company.  In 1958, Joe received another of those rare great gifts — my kid sister Heidi was born, truly the apple of her father’s eye.  In 1959, he participated in the videotaping of the historic Nixon/Khrushchev kitchen debate in Moscow.  By 1960, Joe had built a new family house in Portola Valley.  For almost a year in 1960-1961 the family moved to Europe, and lived in a rented apartment in Bern.  Joe also began his professional love affair with the summer and winter Olympic games in 1960, attending them at both Rome and Seoul.  By the late-60s — many of you will remember them — he and my mother had parted ways, a parting that also closed his long and close relationships with my mother’s family, a great loss.  Joe’s life, in a sense, had to start over again.

There were some lean and lonely years in the late 1960s.  When the opportunity arose, however, he fulfilled his life-long dream of “not working for somebody else” and founded Telegen in 1968 — beginning a long, productive, and warm relationship with Iris Gorgen and, later, Illana Benhamiou.  He married his second wife, Donna Foster Roizen, in Geneva in 1971.  And together, his and Donna’s lives took on the form that would endure for the rest of his — with the world travel and internationalization of his work, the prolific authorship of journal articles, conference talks,  the building of his immense mental archive of jokes, and the pleasant flow of professional awards and honors.  Best of all was the autonomy afforded by running his own company.  Joe worked hard in the ’70s, but this period found him at a professional plateau he had constructed for himself.  He had, I think, in some sense arrived at a nearly ideal circumstance, and he knew it, and he relished it greatly.  He was free to travel (and averaged 250K miles per year), free to pick and choose the clients he wished and take on the kinds of assignments he enjoyed most.  A letter he wrote me — when I was going through some troubles — expressed something of the feeling.  He wrote:

With a 20 year lead on you, I can only say that you are still a young man with the best years of your life still ahead.  There is an inner satisfaction from middle age, which comes from having lived long enough to define who and what your are, and what you want to do with that.  I thought I reached that point when I was 35, and I felt I could bear whatever life threw my way after that.

Together, Joe and Donna designed and helped construct their Portola Valley house, and moved in in 1976.  They commenced a long and pleasant string of beautifully hosted dinner parties and houseguest visits of foreign friends.  Building and finishing the new house continued over some time, something Joe always enjoyed doing.  He also deepened his relationships with Donna’s children, Bruce, Craig, and Sherri over these years.  New friendships grew up too — including with the Faroujas, the Orrs, and the every-bubbly Nahum Guzic.  Also, he built wonderful friendships abroad — something I go a glimpse of in Paris after his death — and got to know the Brazilian wing of the Roizen family.

The ’80s brought a new unity into Joe’s life.  Heidi had grown up.  The development of both Peter’s and Heidi’s companies offered Joe the opportunity to lend his advice and work together with them.  I even co-authored a paper (on Chinese TV) with him.  Peter, Sonja, and Alexander’s move back to California brought us all together again.  Joe also collaborated with Peter and Heidi to buy a chalet at Tahoe Keys, a symbol of the reassertion of his deep sense of family.  For me, Joe also provided the service of regularly visiting two of my children, Zoe and Ezra, when they lived abroad, and he employed my oldest child, Seb, for a time recently.  And he got to know his littlest grandchild, Alexis, and see his blue eyes passed along.

Finally, speaking of genetics, Joe also developed a gentle and even humble letter writing style.  The last letter he wrote to me happened to be about his hereditary psoriasis — “rhinoceros elbows,” he called it.  He wrote all his progeny enclosing an article about it.  He ended with these words:

To those of you who have some of my better genes, I would say this is a small price to pay.  To those of you who don’t have any of the good stuff, my apologies.

Always fulfilling his role as father and backstop — no matter what the circumstances — he turned the deprivations of his own life into duties and gifts he would render to his own children and grandchildren.  If he did not get something in his childhood, then he resolved to be able to provide it for his kids.  And he did.  He made the most of what he was given.

Joe had a great laugh.  At its peak, he would seem to stop breathing.  Then he would give his knee a really good slap.  We’re going to miss that laugh.

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