I met Julius Blank in a hospice bereavement group.
In the Fall of 2007, a few months after my wife died, I joined a bereavement group sponsored by Pathways Hospice of Sunnyvale. Week by week we met in a Lutheran church library, sat around a group of tables, and grieved together over the loss of our spouses. We all had our favorite places to sit in the library and mine was on a corner facing the church patio. It was somewhat comforting to see the plants and flowers through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
In the Spring of the next year a newcomer joined our group. His name was Julius and he sat next to me on that day and every meeting day thereafter. I had no idea who he was, except that he had been an engineer and was grieving the loss of his wife Ethel a few months before. He was a large man, somewhat quiet, of obvious intelligence and had a good sense of humor. I thought of him as a “gentle giant.” Only later did I discover how much of a giant he really was.
One day our group leader, Ann, called me and asked if I would pick up Julius and bring him to our meeting. He had fallen in a parking lot, broken his arm and could not drive. Of course I said “Yes.” And so began my friendship with this “gentle giant.” For the next several months I drove him to our bereavement meetings and on several occasions to his doctor’s appointments. He was very appreciative and on several occasions took me to lunch. I soon learned that he had worked for William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, and was one of the founders of Fairchild Semiconductor. As a mechanical engineer he had designed the machines that made the first integrated circuits on silicon. He was one of the Titans of Silicon Valley. I was in the presence of greatness.
Ann didn’t know it, but she had picked the ideal member of our group, perhaps, to chauffeur Julius. I could talk with him about physics, computers, engineering and history. I knew about Shockley and Noyce. Usually I could understand what he said. Gradually he filled me in on his earlier life. He was from New York City and had attended City College. He worked as a machinist to support himself during school. Called into the U.S. Army in World War II, he was trained in the infantry, sent to a replacement depot (a “repple depple”) in France and then sent into the battle of the Hurtgen Forest during the biterly cold winter of 1944. That battle was a “meat grinder”, thousands of soldiers of both sides died and many of the replacements were killed within a few days or weeks of their assignment. Julius was lucky – he was wounded, walked to the aid station and was soon in a hospital in England. The doctors declared him unfit for any more combat and he was soon working for the Army as a machinist. Julius told me that winter was difficult season for him. The cold, even the mild cold of California, brought flashbacks of the Hurtgen Forest. He had trouble sleeping. Was he suffering from PTSD? Julius, a member of the “Greatest Generation,” paid a price for our victory in World War II.
One day we were having lunch and he shared with me his two great principles of engineering. 1. “There are no perfect solutions to problems, only trade-offs.” 2. “You can’t get rid of dirt, only move it.” I often think about that conversation and ponder it’s significance. I have the feeling that it was a father-son conversation.
At one of our bereavement meetings Ann thanked me for bringing Julius to the meetings. I told her that I considered it a mitzvah – a Hebrew word that my late wife had taught me. It means an act of human kindness. Julius’s arm soon healed. He resumed driving and no longer needed my help. At the end of one of our meetings he presented me with a Mont Blanc Meisterstück fountain pen in appreciation of my mitzvah. I was awestruck, almost speechless, for I loved fountain pens and this was an extravagant and expensive gift. It was a personal pen of his – it was still filled with purple ink. How did he know? He had overheard me express my liking for fountain pens in an earlier meeting. How typical of the “gentle giant.” On the way home I cried, one of the few times in my life that I have cried for joy. I later wrote him a thank-you note. I used the Mont Blanc, of course.
The bereavement group came to an end, but a number of us, including Julius, continued to meet monthly for brunch at Stacks in Menlo Park. Julius came frequently during the early months, then sporadically. He talked of surgery and seeing his cardiologist. He seemed to be moving more slowly now. Several calls were made to remind him of the meetings – calls that were not returned. He stopped coming. Now I understand why.
Julius Blank died of natural causes on Saturday, September 17, 2011. He was 86 years old. He was a long time resident of Los Altos Hills, but at the time of his death he was living in retirement at the Moldaw Family Residence, Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto. Directly across the street was the original Fairchild Semiconductor building with an historical marker out front.
Julius, it was a pleasure to know you, even for a short time. I will miss you. You enriched my life.