A Geek in the Best Sense by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By Aunts & Uncles

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

Author’s Note: Here in the Silicon Valley, geek has a positive, not a dorky connotation. I’ve put “in the Best Sense” in the title to clarify the meaning for those in other parts of the country who might not be familiar with the positive use of the term.

Occasionally I'd hear strange noises emanating from his basement office. Sometimes a squeak, sometimes a series of booms.

When I was a small child, my dad’s older brother Julian was just my uncle, quiet and eccentric. He smoked a pipe, and would hold conversations in his introverted way. He worked at home in New Rochelle, New York, and when we were visiting my Aunt Ruth and cousins Steve and Barbara, occasionally I’d hear strange noises emanating from his basement office. Sometimes a squeak, sometimes a series of booms. My dad told me he tested hi-fi and stereo equipment, and had his own company, which was intriguing.

I also learned from my dad that Uncle Julian received a ham radio license at age 14, one of the youngest people to do so. And when he was about 10, Uncle Julian set the kitchen curtains on fire doing an experiment with a chemistry set, apparently one of many youthful misadventures that drove my grandmother to distraction. My dad was mechanically inclined and took over lawn mowing and home repairs by the time he was in his early teens, while my grandfather traveled for work. By contrast, Uncle Julian avoided all such tasks and focused on his interest in electronics. He was accepted into the electrical engineering curriculum at The Cooper Union in New York City, a very competitive institution at that time.

By the time I was in my teens, Uncle Julian had a regular column evaluating equipment for Hi-Fi Stereo Review magazine (later Stereo Review).* I thought this was fascinating. While I didn’t talk to him about it in detail, he planted the seed that one could be a writer about technical subjects–indeed, I consider him one of the first “technical writers” in a modern sense. My favorite recollection of this time is when I was invited down to his basement office with my dad and my cousin Steve to see the new “quad” speaker set he was testing. The sound surrounded us and we enjoyed the experience, although quad never took off.

But, until I got to college and into my 20s, I had no idea that Uncle Julian was famous. I started understanding his fame (and some would say notoriety) when young men whom I met as friends or dates noticed my last name. They would comment, “Oh, Hirsch … I’m familiar with a Julian Hirsch.”

“He’s my uncle,” I would reply. They would immediately act very impressed or excited and say how they followed every word of his column. Apparently Uncle Julian had a lot of fanboys (they were all males back then) and some detractors.

Uncle Julian continued to grow his career along with the audio industry. By the time he retired I had been in California for decades, but did see him and my aunt at weddings (including my own) and other family events for relatives on the west coast.

By the year 2000, Uncle Julian started to have complications related to surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, and was dealing with dementia. When my dad became ill, they were able to talk, but when my dad died at the end of 2001, in consultation with my Aunt Ruth, we decided not to tell Uncle Julian. We knew he’d be sad and upset, but then would forget, and we didn’t want to have him grieve over and over as if for the first time. Uncle Julian passed away in 2003.

I’ve respected Uncle Julian as a model for my career in scientific, technical, and marketing writing. In researching an image for this story, I realized I had underestimated the degree of fame he achieved. Besides the tributes to him in technical magazines, there was an obituary in the New York Times, and a current Wikipedia page. He is referenced in Wikipedia as ” …  one of the most influential writers ever in consumer electronics.” This is a moving tribute to add to the memories of my Uncle Julian.

*Back issues of the magazine from the 1950s and subsequent decades are available online.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Wonderful tribute to your uncle Marian.
    It was lovely for you to realize how well-known and respected in his field he was, and good how he influenced you.

    My aunt Babe who I wrote about this week is the one in my family who influenced me!

  2. Your Uncle Julian sounds like such a lovely man. I have always been drawn to introverts, something about those still waters that intrigue me. Isn’t it interesting that he was always interested in electronics? I love how some people just have a calling and that’s all there is to it, and that he followed it for his entire life makes it that much richer. I see a scholarship fund was even established in his name. It makes me feel good that we’re acknowledging his contributions today, although he would probably be a little abashed…that’s the way introverts usually are. But I especially love that he planted the seed that you, too, could be a technical writer…and here you are still doing such important work, Mare. Thanks for a great story and deeper understanding of what makes YOU tick!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Barb. His inspiration almost snuck up on me, which can be the case with introverts. I didn’t know about the scholarship fund either until I started researching. My cousin Steve filled in a lot of gaps from the later years.

  3. Suzy says:

    Wow, Marian, what an interesting man your Uncle Julian was! How cool that guys you met in college knew who he was and were impressed that you were related to him! Did that lead to any big romances? Of course I had to go read his Wikipedia page and NYT obit after you mentioned them. Glad that you learned so much about him, and that he was a model for your distinguished career!

    • Marian says:

      Alas, no romances came as a result of the guys being impressed that I was Julian’s niece. If he were still living today, I bet Uncle Julian would get a kick out of all the developments in electronics that we now take for granted, such as smart phones, and how people listen to music today. My dad always admired my uncle and looked up to him as his older brother. He also went to Cooper Union, saying that if it was good enough for Julian, it was good enough for him.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Marian. Sounds like Uncle Julian was an amazing man — not being an electronics geek, I had not heard of him, but I am betting my older brother has. But what I really like (which I suspect was aprt of your intent) was to celebrate someone who was an introverted “geek,” rather than the more typically, bigger-than-life personalities we are more typically drawn to. Bravo on a wonderful tribute to Uncle Julian!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, John. I welcome the opportunity to recognize introverts who might be overlooked. They tend not to toot their own horns, as was the case with Uncle Julian. Even his son, my cousin Steve, had to do a lot of digging to find out facts about certain events. While he could be opinionated, we never heard Uncle Julian boast about anything he achieved.

  5. Wow, Marian! I guess that makes me a fan boy. I remember the columns (none specifically but I do remember.) I grew up with a similar interest in audio – including amateur radio although I never pursued it. But “hifi” and it’s progeny – including “quad”, which I remember very well. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • Marian says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the trip, Tom, and I was rather hoping one of the guys on Retrospect would remember. Uncle Julian still talked on his ham radio a lot while I was growing up. I remember all that “strange” terminology he used to identify himself on it.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I enjoyed learning about your Uncle Julian, Marian. So interesting that your career as a technical writer was inspired by his work. Clearly, he was very accomplished but also modest, so you didn’t realize he was so well known in his field. He sounds like a wonderful and talented person.

    • Marian says:

      I definitely get my writing interests (and probably my independent streak) from the Hirsch side of my family, Laurie, so it was fun doing this story and remembering where the traits come from. Uncle Julian had his quirks, as do all geeks, but his accomplishments justified the eccentricities.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Let’s hear it for Geeks, Marian! Yes, certain people are just born with gifts and your Uncle Julian had them in abundance. Thank you for sharing him with us. What an interesting man. As you wonder, I also wonder what he’d make of all the advances in this electronic era. But very cool that he was so well known in his field that kids recognized his name and you had some of his fame by association.

Leave a Reply