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From Farm Country to Silicon Valley
ROBESONIA IS AN IDYLLIC little borough in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. It's where I was born and raised—and where I learned the meaning of hard work. Both of my parents' families were dairy, cattle, and crop farmers. My mother was from a family of eleven, and several of her siblings never made it past infancy. My dad was from a family of nine children. He was a twin at number seven/eight in the family. Both Mom and Dad were of similar Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing. Both were raised on farms. Both learned English as their second language. While they grew up some sixty miles apart, each walked to the nearest one-room schoolhouse for their first-through-eighth-grade education. For both of my parents, their large families made up a high percentage of the student body in the tiny one-room schoolhouse that provided the entirety of their formal education. Neither was given the opportunity to pursue an education beyond eighth grade.
As my dad's siblings reached the age of maturity and marriage, they moved into farming with a bit of financial assistance from Grandpa. Grandpa helped son #1, son #2, daughter #1, and so on, but when finally getting to my dad, he said, "You're on your own, Son, we already have enough farms in the family." Thus, my father began his farming career by working for his brothers.
There's always more than enough work to do on a farm. Thus, Dad was more than welcome to help out a couple of my uncles. This worked wonderfully for quite a few years. Then, as his older brothers began having their own families, and their children reached the age of maturity and took on the responsibilities of the family farms, Dad became less central to the operations of my uncles' farms. On several occasions Dad looked into buying a farm, but he was never quite the high bidder, or the loan didn't quite materialize, or he just didn't have enough financial support from Grandpa to go forward with the purchase. Thus, he never did acquire a farm of his own.
I enjoyed the hard work of my uncles' farms. Further, I always liked working with my dad. Had Dad ever acquired a farm of his own, I'd be there to this day, working with him on the family homestead. Instead of being an expert in computer chips, I'd be quite knowledgeable in cow chips!
I learned much from my dad and my farming uncles, aunts, and cousins. It's hard to be closely associated with a farming environment and not develop a deep and powerful work ethic. Up early every day, hard manual labor from dawn to dusk, and late to bed, totally exhausted from a hard day's toil.
While Dad continued to work on the farm with my uncles, he took on a full-time position at the local steel mill. Since that wasn't enough to make ends meet and keep him busy, he was also a township supervisor overseeing most of their road building and maintenance. For almost all of my formative years, I saw him working these three jobs simultaneously. He worked hard to provide a lifestyle and environment for his family that was better than the one he was raised in. To this day, I consider myself somewhat lazy compared to him. In many ways, he's one of the heroes of my life.
We attended church every Sunday. My family and many of my immediate relatives attended the United Church of Christ in nearby Wernersville. I was baptized at six days old and only missed a Sunday under rare circumstances of illness. We polished our shoes Saturday nights, got up Sunday mornings, put on our jackets and ties, and went to church. Dad disliked being late for church, so we rarely ever were. This was just the way it was, and I was not about to disrupt the family's routine.
I was formally confirmed when I was twelve years old. This was the process by which one became a full member of the congregation. Since we were baptized as infants, this was the point where you would make a public declaration of membership into the congregation. I became president of the youth group at fourteen. By all outward appearances, I was a shining example of a Christian young man. I was at church every Sunday, knew the hymns well, did my turn as altar boy, was confirmed, and was president of the youth group. What else could you want or expect from a young guy? Some years later when my then-wife-to-be, Linda, asked if I was a Christian, the reply without hesitation or doubt was, "Yes!" And I proceeded to recite this same list of evidences why that assertion was true. Like many today, I was certain my works and achievements qualified me for a position in God's eyes. How naive and wrong I was.
But the reality of my life was far different. While I was by all outward signs a perfect specimen of a Christian young man on Sundays, the remainder of the week was a different story. By the time I was seventeen, I had experimented with many of the temptations of our age. Several of the guys I hung around with were not the kind of company you would want for friends of your children.
Living a lie was fun, daring, and challenging. I liked being seen as the perfect boy on Sundays. Every mother and grandmother would compliment me, and many would convey their desire for me to be their own each Sunday. Of course, keeping the mothers and grandmothers on my side was most beneficial for positioning myself with some of the young ladies that I had my eye on at the time.
Looking back, I would compare my life then to those coin bins that sit at the doorways of some diners and restaurants. You drop a coin in the top and it goes spiraling slowly downward. While the coin might "think" the ride is wonderful, thrilling, and fun, the end point is absolute and final; gravity makes sure it lands in the hole at the bottom 100 percent of the time. For those in such a lifestyle as I was, the end is equally final—a hole at the end of life called hell. That's the path I was on, and I was by all appearances enjoying the ride and making very good time.
God had, however, blessed me with a good mind, and he began to use it to steer me in a different direction. Because Dad didn't have his own farm for me to inherit, I would have to pursue a different career path. I considered a variety of options and decided to give electronics a try. Partially out of typical high school boredom, and partially out of good math skills and a general interest in electronics, I began attending Berks Vocational Technical School in the afternoons of my sophomore and junior years of high school. The teacher of the class, Howard Buck, was particularly encouraging to me. He challenged my lifestyle on more than one occasion, and as he saw some of the individuals I was hanging out with and my decaying lifestyle, he became concerned. He saw considerable talent in me and was very concerned about the apparent squandering of those talents. One day he even pulled me aside to encourage me on a more fruitful path. While he is now deceased, I am grateful for his willingness to take such a proactive role.
It was during this time that I accidentally took the Lincoln Technical Institute's electronics technology scholarship exam. The exam was intended for seniors but somehow I ended up taking it during my junior year in high school. Surprisingly, I won the scholarship and was entitled to two years of free tuition. Because our family was considered lower-middle class economically, a full-tuition scholarship was very enticing indeed. Today, I clearly see this episode as a bit of divine intervention in my life.
Winning the scholarship did pose a certain difficulty though: I wasn't yet a senior and wouldn't be graduating from high school for another year and a half. However, the scholarship was offered for only the following school year. Thus, a chapter of my life began to unfold that I would have never anticipated.
THE JUGGLING BEGINS
With a scholarship and greater challenges, opportunities, and freedom in front of me, I skipped my last year of high school and began working toward my associate's degree at Lincoln Technical Institute at the age of seventeen. I commuted for a few months, but after I was in a car accident, my parents and I decided that I should move into an apartment immediately adjacent to the school. While my roommates were generally nice guys, they were even more wordly than I, active in drinking, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.
While in hindsight I don't recommend people rush into life quite as quickly as I did, God was clearly working my poor choices toward a higher calling for my life. He was about to begin a mighty and amazing work in me.
Not only did I start working on my two-year degree at seventeen, but I also accelerated my coursework at Lincoln Tech. Instead of taking six quarters, I doubled up classes one quarter and finished in five. Also, while it was fine with my high school for me to skip a year, I needed to have a few more credits to complete my high school requirements. Thus, I also attended some night classes in calculus, English, and history at the local community college, Lehigh Valley Community College. This was the beginning of the overflowing schedule that would become common for me, as you will see. I was intense and disciplined. Given my farming background, I was comfortable working hard and sleeping only five hours a night during the week. (Admittedly, I continue this kind of intense schedule to this day.)
During this period, I also began part-time work. While my classes were paid for by my scholarship, I needed money for rent, gas, and books. The local radio and TV station, WFMZ, hired me primarily to do equipment maintenance and repair, but I also managed to get a few weekend night shifts of keeping music on the air, doing a weather announcement or two, and keeping the TV programs and commercials on the air. After doubling up on classes, taking evening classes, and now working evenings and weekends, my skills for a career as a master juggler were already taking shape.
At Lincoln Tech I had my first experience with computers. As soon as I started using one, I was hooked. I now knew what I wanted to do with my career. I began playing with a Radio Shack TRS 80, my first RSA 1802, and other simple training computers available at Lincoln Tech. While I was enthusiastic about electronics in general, computers became my passion. I consumed everything I could find on the subject.
In my last quarter at Lincoln I began to interview for electronics technician positions. I interviewed with a variety of East Coast companies like IBM and Western Electric. While I really wasn't interested in leaving the East Coast, I also decided to talk with a West Coast company named Intel, which had come to recruit technicians. Generally, Intel didn't recruit on the East Coast, but they were growing rapidly and there was an industry-wide shortage of technicians. I was the last interviewee in what had been a long day for Ron J. Smith, an engineering manager for Intel at the time. He had interviewed twelve candidates that day.
For any of you who have ever done any interviewing, you know that after about five or six candidates, you barely can recall one from another. After about nine or ten, it's hard to tell male from female ... and I was number twelve on his agenda! His reactions were reflected in the brief summary he wrote about me: "Smart, very aggressive, and somewhat arrogant—he'll fit right in."
From this interview, I received an invitation to visit Intel. I was eighteen years old and had never been on an airplane. Outside of a few trips to neighboring states and one trip to the Niagara Falls in Canada, our family had not traveled very far from home at all and certainly not all the way across the country! After careful and thoughtful consideration that lasted about two nanoseconds, I accepted the invitation for my first-ever plane flight to the growing and already-famous Silicon Valley of California.
While I was off on my interview trip to California, my mother was having major surgery. On the day of my return, I walked into her hospital room, and the instant she saw me, she knew I was bound for the West. In one of several marvelous, divine coincidences in my life, this was the only year that Intel ever came recruiting at Lincoln Tech. Had I not "accidentally" taken that scholarship exam, I'd never have had the opportunity to interview with Intel.
I thus graduated with my high school class in June of that year, finished my associate's degree from Lincoln Tech at the top of my class in August, and left for California in October to start working at Intel. To say the least, 1979 had been a most amazing year for me.
OFF TO CALIFORNIA
Despite the objections of my relatives, I packed up my sparse belongings and started the trek to California. I knew no one there except for a couple of guys from Lincoln Tech who took jobs at Intel at the same time I did. Thus, the suggestion to get a house together was easy to accept. While my salary seemed like a fortune for an East Coast farm boy, I quickly found that living in California was much more expensive than I expected. I could not even come close to affording an apartment of my own. Furthermore, having someone familiar around was comforting for this eighteen-year-old who was much too far from home.
Jack was a guitar-playing, pot-smoking, drug-using, hot-rodding, rock 'n' roller. Bob was a neo-Nazi kind of guy who collected guns, grenades, and bomb materials. As you might expect, spirituality wasn't a strong point of our bachelor-trio home. Jack and Bob; Bongs and Bombs—what a great set of peers and housemates!
Because my roommate Jack immediately convinced me to repaint my eyesore-of-a-car, I was without transportation for my first few weeks in California. Intel was just a few blocks away so it was easy to walk to work. However, not having a car meant I would need to walk to the nearest church rather than seeking out a UCC church or a Lutheran church that would have been true to my roots. In keeping with the habit of my youth to be in church on Sunday, I took a stroll to Santa Clara Christian Church, which was just a few blocks down the street.
At the end of the first service I attended there, two young women, Karen and Linda, came up to greet this young visitor. They seemed a bit giggly but were friendly. When I identified myself as having just moved to California and started with Intel, Linda immediately asked, "Do you eat in the cafeteria?" This question struck me as odd for a first question to ask someone you are welcoming to church. Thus, in my response, I gave her a very perplexed look. This expression sent the two of them off giggling.
A couple of silly girls had absolutely zero appeal to me. It turns out that Linda worked for the food-services company that ran the cafeterias at Intel, so her seemingly odd question wasn't really silly as I assumed, but it certainly did start us off on the wrong foot.
Linda didn't find me any more appealing than I initially found her. She looked at me as a smart-aleck, immature kid. In contrast, she was three years older, had been living on her own for two years, and was certainly far more mature. We couldn't have been further from love at first sight.
It was another one of those divine coincidences. Had it been a couple of weeks later, when my car would be back in driving condition, I probably never would have chosen to attend this church. Instead, I would have certainly gone looking for something closer to my denominational heritage. However, the youth group quickly welcomed me in to join them in their various activities. This young lady named Linda was almost always there. Thus, we began to strike up an acquaintance despite our initial, mutual distaste for each other.
Despite the fact that my roommates and I were quite the bachelors and not particularly domesticated, we decided to have a Thanksgiving feast for our few friends in the area. I invited Linda over to join us. After the meal and cleanup, we went for a nice walk around the neighborhood and discussed a wide range of personal and spiritual topics. Given we had no romantic interests, this was a great conversation where Linda made clear a number of her expectations and standards.
Upon our return from our walk, we entered the house through the living room, where Jack, Bob, and some of the other guests there were gathered around a strange contraption in the center of the room emitting a funny odor. Linda and I went into the other room and were talking and looking at pictures. She asked what they were doing out there. I replied nonchalantly, "They're smoking pot in a bong."
Aghast, Linda refused to ever come back to the house and began to strongly encourage me to seek new roommates. She also started taking me before the Lord in earnest, and she convinced several prayer warriors at the Santa Clara Church to join her in praying for my exit out of this den of iniquity—fast!
Excerpted from THE JUGGLING ACT by PAT GELSINGER. Copyright © 2008 Pat Gelsinger. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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Posted March 23, 2010
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