Jack Small, October 1969—March 2011

I first made friends with Jack over the phone. It was 1992, and I was editing and publishing (with David Om, who also passed away two years ago) the Visual News, a monthly newsletter devoted to the programming language Prograph. Jack was a Prograph user and enthusiast, and submitted articles for publication. I often had occasion to talk with him about editing changes and the like. Since he was living in North Carolina and I was in California, and this was before the days of the pervasive internet, we talked on the phone. I started to notice that these conversations tended to last for a couple of hours, and ranged far beyond the editing questions that occasioned them. I honestly do not remember what we talked about at the start, just that I found it very hard to break off a conversation. This has been such a pattern in my life with a number of my friends that I have a name for it: conversational Velcro. I have found that with such people it is no use waiting for a natural break in the conversation to end it; there are no such breaks. Jack was so interesting, so intelligent, so wide-ranging in his interests and knowledge that the only way to end a conversation was simply to announce that I had to go to sleep now. Even then there will always be one last topic that we just have to talk about. This exact thing happened the last time I talked with Jack, a few days before he died. What we had was a twenty-year dialog punctuated by breaks necessitated by the rest of our lives.

The first time that we met in person was around two years into our friendship. I had been teaching Prograph, and organizing the Prograph User Group that met at Apple in Cupertino every month. I was approached at one of these meetings by Doug Smith of Perkin Elmer Advanced Biosystems. Doug helped invent the machines that were used for gene sequencing, and they were finding the quantity of data involved was overwhelming their primitive data handling capabilities. (I believe they were using Excel at the time!) He was putting together a programming team to put together a custom-built solution, and saw the benefits in doing it in Prograph. He hired me to teach his team Prograph. After the course he asked me if I would be interested in being lead programmer for the project. I said that I did not have anywhere near the kinds of skills needed for such a large undertaking, but that I knew exactly the person for the job. A week later I picked Jack up from San Francisco airport for his interview. I must admit that I was quite shocked at how young he looked. Given the level of conversation we had enjoyed I had given no thought to the fact that Jack was the same age as my son! This quickly passed and we fell quickly into an even richer version of our familiar interaction.

Long story short, Jack got the job (Doug Smith was smart enough to look beyond his youth) and moved to California. This was a major turning point in his life, and I am proud and happy that I was able to have a hand in it. Others are much more qualified than I to speak of his work at Perkin Elmer, but I do know that Doug Smith expressed his fervent gratitude to me on more than one occasion for introducing them.

After Jack was forced by ill-health to leave Perkin Elmer, he was unable because of his disability to take paying work. He therefore embarked on the project that consumed his time and energy until the day he died, the revival and popularization of Prograph. Again, I am not qualified to make any judgments about his work, but I did listen to him talking about the project for many hours, and I was in awe of his ability to conceptualize complex systems and manipulate them in his mind. Implementing a programming language ranks as one of the more complex undertakings that one could wish to undertake, and most of what he talked about was way beyond my comprehension, but he had a way of explaining issues in simple and direct terms that made it possible for me to understand and appreciate what he was describing. Over the past few years we have been talking over video link (iChat) on average twice a week for two or three hours at a time.

Jack was an idealist. He was a fierce defender of the underdog and he had a deep and angry contempt for those that he saw victimizing others for their own gain. One of the most painful experiences of my life was to watch Jack struggle with the health care system. He had the best health insurance that money could buy, yet he recently estimated that fully one third of his available time was spent dealing with the administrative maze he was required to fight his way through. This is in addition to the time spent actually receiving health care; doctor visits, checkups, tests and so on. And always with the worry and stress of possibly losing his health care altogether if he put a foot wrong. Yet with all of this on top of his actual health issues, he had time and attention to worry about the plight of earthquake victims in Japan and rebels in Libya and all of the people suffering in the world.

Jack's enormous intellectual accomplishments took place against a background of considerable personal turmoil. On many occasions we talked about the fact that he had quite fortuitously had experiences that few people undergo. He was born with a hormonal imbalance that had the effect of dampening his experience of emotions. He described it as being something like Mr Spock, coolly logical and somewhat perplexed by emotional responses in others. At the age of 30 he started taking hormone replacement therapy, and was suddenly dropped headlong into the world of the emotions. This was a very courageous act, as it was, as he said, like being an emotional teenager in a 30-year old body. He had to learn from scratch along with all the other challenges of his life, all the painful lessons we learn when we are blessedly young. He did not lightly decide to go forward with this. He understood what it would mean, and he was also aware that once he started he could never go back to the way he was before. But Jack was never one to shrink from a challenge. The immense benefit that this gave was a deep compassionate understanding of both the logical, intellectual point of view and the non-rational emotional point of view because he had experienced both, and because he was a deeply self-examining person.

Another aspect that deeply colored Jack's life experience was having lived for nearly a decade with a death sentence, and being reprieved at the last moment. At the time he was diagnosed as HIV+ it was a fatal disease. Sooner or later, probably in eight years or so, you would get sick and die. Only it did not happen that way for Jack. When he did find himself in hospital with pneumonia, and assumed he had days to live, his doctor told him he was going to get a new combination of drugs that would keep him alive. One might think that this would be pretty much unalloyed good news, but it carried some major challenges. When you know you are going to die soon, you lead a different kind of life, with different priorities than if you think you are going to live a long life. You do not tend to make long-term provision for the future, either materially or emotionally. The sudden discovery that he was going to inhabit this body maybe for decades longer than he thought, with all of the worries and responsibilities involved in living in today's world, and absolutely dependent on an uninterrupted supply of very expensive medications was a rose with very sharp thorns. I am not, of course, saying that Jack regretted staying alive or wished he had died, but the last years of Jack's life were beset with some very dark moments, when the manifold challenges he faced seemed insuperable. Yet always he would bounce back. The last time I talked to him, less than a week before he died, he told me how excited he was at the prospect of working on the Prograph for Haiku project again, and how he had new ideas he wanted to try out. No matter what challenges he faced in his personal life, he never stopped caring about the things that were important to him.

It may seem like an odd description for Jack, but in my eyes he was a true Southern gentleman. He was courteous and considerate. When he felt he had acted hurtfully, his apology was genuine and complete. When you visited him, he was actively hospitable, offering whatever he had to offer. I believe that the key to Jack's strength of character, the bedrock on which he stood was his family. He often talked to me about his childhood and teenage years. You can imagine that a person such as Jack was not a very good fit in a South that is still not exactly a bastion of tolerance. Nonetheless, he told me, his parents never wavered in their support for him. They stood up for him when he incurred the wrath of church or school. They completely accepted him and loved him. It was probably the greatest conflict of his life that he felt that he had to live in San Francisco to fit in with society at large, yet that meant sacrificing being close to his family. He was keenly aware of the fact that they would much prefer that he lived close to them, but still completely supported him in his decision. He blamed himself for causing them pain.

I cannot begin to contemplate the hole Jack is going to leave in my life. He has been a deeply embedded part of the fabric of my existence for a very long time. In a very large area of my life he was the first person I would turn to for help, or to share a new discovery. But I am also aware that my grief and sadness are for me, not for Jack. I am the one who is bereft, who bears the loss. If there is any consolation to be had at such a time, it is in the thought that Jack is finally at peace. His struggle is over. He dealt with challenges in his life that no one person should have to bear, and he acquitted himself with grace and courage. He faced his demons squarely and, if he did not always defeat them, he never himself conceded defeat. He has, by his example, taught me much about life, and I am deeply grateful to have had the privilege of calling him my friend. He has earned his rest.

Patrick Brinton