Opinion: Remembering Adobe’s John Warnock, a Silicon Valley giant

One of the premier inventors of our time helped change the world

I recently attended John Warnock’s memorial service. Most people will be unfamiliar with his name; he was a brilliant but modest man. He was also a member of the pantheon of those who created our special valley and changed the world, alongside Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Gordon Moore, Bob Noyce, and Steve Jobs.

As I sat thinking about my time on the Tech Museum board with him, my mind wandered back to where 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 write, communicate, and dream. It was a place I was familiar with. I spent about nine years at St. Joseph’s Grammar School, which was run by the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Jesuits from the church down the street. We lived in a very different place back then, not quite a city but the beginnings of one.

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

That afternoon, many memories were evoked as Warnock was remembered for his impact.

A block away stood the Tech Museum, which he worked tirelessly to open in order to pave the way for others. I know that the buses pulling up there, inspiring future leaders like Noyce or Jobs, was his greatest gift to our city and our country. Yet, after many were unsuccessfully wooed, his penultimate gift to San Jose was bringing Adobe’s headquarters downtown — he and his wife, Marva, led from the front. We are all better off as a result of their vision in a troubled world.

There were many admirable observations made that afternoon, but the most important was capturing a simple fact: He lived the generous life of an extraordinary man when much less would have been impressive.

I’ve often referred to our Tech Museum as our own Mount Rushmore, with those quotes in granite from Dave and Bill, Noyce and Moore. It has the same ability to amaze and inspire as the original. Many people, including tech titans, are clearly in need of leadership and vision at this time. I hope to see Warnock join them on the front lines one day, no matter how much he dislikes it. It would be critical for us to do so so that many people remember what has been done here.

I can still see downtown from my bedroom, but from a slightly different perspective than I did when I was a kid. Giannini’s green light isn’t as bright as it once was, but it still shimmers. And I can see the Adobe towers clearly and beckoningly out my window. It will remind me of that afternoon and my conviction that we can build what our people need and deserve here. We can do it if we have the desire to do so and follow in the footsteps of a good man.

Tom McEnery is a former San Jose mayor.

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