Remembering Adobe’s John Warnock, a Silicon Valley giant

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I recently went to the memorial service for John Warnock. Most will not be familiar with the name — he was a brilliant man but a modest one. He was also a person ranking with Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Gordon Moore, Bob Noyce and Steve Jobs in the pantheon of those who created our special valley and changed the world.

As I sat thinking of my time with him on the Tech Museum board, my mind drifted back to the place I now sit, the  headquarters of Adobe Systems — the company he co-founded with Chuck Gesecke and one that changed so much of how we do our writing and communicating and dreaming. It was a place I know well. I attended St. Joseph’s Grammar School on that very site, about nine years with the Sisters of Notre Dame and Jesuits of the church down the street.  We lived in a very different place then, not really a city but definitely the beginnings of one.

My family has lived and worked in our downtown for generations, and from my bedroom window I could see AP Giannini’s Bank of America with new hopes and its shining green light at the highest pinnacle. New energy for our city. But here, with a nod to Apple, Adobe was the most important software company of all. Warnock was so admired that Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Here was clearly one of the premier inventors of our time. So much so that they named a  algorithm after him.

Many memories were evoked that afternoon as Warnock was remembered for his impact.

A block away stood the Tech Museum that he worked so hard to open, to light the way for others. I know that as the buses are pulling up there, allowing future leaders, another Noyce or Jobs, to be inspired, it was his greatest  gift to our city and our nation. Yet, his penultimate gift to San Jose, after many were unsuccessfully wooed, from Steve Jobs onward, was bringing Adobe’s headquarters to downtown — he and his wife, Marva, led from the front.  We are all the richer for their vision in a needy world.

There were many laudable things observed that afternoon, but the most significant was capturing a simple fact: He lived the generous life of an extraordinary man when even much less would have been impressive.

I have often referred to our Tech Museum, alive with those quotes in granite from Dave and Bill, Noyce and Moore, as our own Mount Rushmore. Just as the original, it has the ability to amaze and inspire. These are surely times when leadership and vision are needed from many, even tech moguls. I hope to see one day Warnock joining them there on the front, no matter how he might dislike it. It would be important for us, so that many will remember what has been done here.

I can still see the downtown from my bedroom, but from a slightly different angle than I viewed as a boy. Giannini’s green light is not so bright, but it still shimmers. And I clearly see the clear and beckoning site of the Adobe towers out my window. It will remind me of  that afternoon and the belief that we can build for our people what they need and deserve here. We can do it if we only have the will to pursue it, and follow the example of a good man.

Tom McEnery is the former mayor of San Jose.

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