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By: Shannon Deep (CMU'10, HNZ'11)
This is not what Charles Geschke expected. The math professor at John Carroll University has a visitor in his office. What’s unnerving is that the former graduate student is smiling at him. Just last year, the young man was on the agenda for a faculty meeting and the professors agreed that he wasn’t cut out for a mathematics career. The only question remaining was who would inform him. Geschke drew the short straw. When he broke the news to the student, he made sure to tell him that this wasn’t a reflection on his intelligence; rather, it would give him a chance to find a career path that was more suited to his strengths.
Twelve months later, in 1967, the former student requested to meet again with his professor, and Geschke graciously complied. The unexpected smile of his guest makes him wonder whether he should have. “You know, Professor Geschke,” the young man begins, breaking the silence, “the best thing you ever did was kick me out of here.”
After leaving mathematics behind, the student fell into a job working with computers, a lucrative business even in the mid-1960s. He tells his former professor that he made so much money in the previous year that he had to come back and thank him for asking him to leave the department! He also wanted to do something for Geschke as a token of appreciation.
“Maybe,” he offers, “you’d like to learn how to program a computer?”
Fast-forward through the better part of five decades. Geschke and his wife, Nancy, donate $3 million to Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute to endow the directorship of the institute, whose goal is to build technology that supports all facets of human activity and understand the role and effect of technology in human life. Geschke is now a highly decorated leader in the field of computing who has earned numerous prestigious honors, including the 2010 Marconi Prize, considered by many the Nobel Prize for the information technology field. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008 and just a year later was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama.
So how did a math professor in the 1960s come to shake hands with the president of the United States by his 70th birthday? Some people can trace their careers back to childhood fantasies. Some can attribute their professional lives to the swift kick of serendipity. Geschke became a co-founder of Adobe Systems—yes, that Adobe—the Adobe of Acrobat, Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator, among others. And he can follow his long and accomplished career back to his former student’s simple question.
“Maybe you’d like to learn how to program a computer?”
He also is indebted to his wife’s keen eye. As Geschke and other members of John Carroll’s math faculty learned to program, Nancy couldn’t help but notice that he was having a lot more fun playing around with computers than he seemed to be having pursuing his PhD in mathematics at nearby Case Western Reserve University. Although they had two children and were not in a financial position to allow a drastic change of track, Nancy convinced her husband that it was important that he pursue a career he loved.
“When I’m asked to give a commencement talk,” Geschke says, “I tell the students that if you get married, pick someone who is smarter than you.”(Continued …)