Sunday, January 20, 2008


In 1972 I was working as a newly trained assembler programmer at a Boston newspaper, and spending some evenings at the Board Room, a third floor bar. Through a long series of coincidences this led to a vice-presidency in a Chicago company a few years later. But first things first.

Among the regulars at the bar were two men who knew each other from an earlier employment. They were both ten or fifteen years older than I, but we hit it off right away, and often chatted, played chess or bumper pool, or otherwise socialized.

One day Drew offered me a job in one of his departments at Blue Cross of Massachusetts, and a day or two later I accepted. I was assigned to a program development department and given the title "Senior Systems Designer." Whatever that meant, I was unqualified for it, but was or soon became quite competent at the actual work I had to do.

On the day I reported to my new job I was surprised to see Rob, the other of the two gents from the Board Room, in my area talking to two or three employees. I walked over and when there was a lull in the conversation I ventured, "Hi Rob. What are you doing here?"

"You work for me, son." It turned out that he had just been hired as VP of data processing, which made him Drew's boss.

As it happened, it didn't affect our social relationships, other than to strengthen them. Occasionally Rob would call me and ask me to visit with him for a cup of coffee. Amazingly, at least to me, this was a problem for some of the other people in data processing. All programmers and analysts (and, ahem, Senior Systems Designers) were on the same floor, and some were annoyed by my relationship with and access to Rob. Screw 'em. I never used the relationship for my own benefit and I didn't much care what people with such small minds thought.

The visits became very frequent several months later, as a result of the championship chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Rob knew that I had played a little tournament chess. He also knew that I got my butt kicked a lot, but that I still had a better understanding of the game than he did. On most days the newspapers carried a report of the preceding day's chess action, and Rob would call me to visit, set up a chess board, and ask me to go through the play with him, attempting to answer any questions he had.

Some days he would tell me to pack it in an hour early, leave work, and join him at the Board Room to watch the match, which was being televised on PBS, moderated by chess master Shelby Lyman. Naturally, this triggered more buzzing regarding Rob and me. Oh well.

I worked in that department for several years, sometimes spending evenings or weekends socializing with Rob, Drew, and Rob's new Assistant Vice President, Paul, who had also worked with Rob and Drew in the past. Incidentally, they were three of the friendliest, most personable, most intelligent people I ever met.

For reasons too convoluted to go into here, I left Rob's area and moved to Blue Shield. It seemed to me that the data processing area was headed for serious problems (in the event, it was) and going in a direction I didn't care to take even if it turned out to be successful.

I have always been able to separate my business life and my social life, even to the extent of dealing differently with the same person in the two environments. When I left the department it was because I was absolutely convinced that Rob was making a major mistake with the company's data processing. We occasionally discussed it, always agreed to disagree, and remained friends.

March 9, 1943 - January 17, 2008


tgiotio said...

Sorry for your loss.

Tom G.

BrokenDownProgrammer said...

Hi Tom,

I thank you, but I've caused a little confusion. There are too many Robs, Roberts, and Bobbys in my post.

The R.I.P. was for Bobby Fischer the chess player, whom I did not know, although he was my chess hero in the 1960s and 1970s.

He died in a hospital in Iceland several days ago, and is at last free of the demons that have tortured him for more than thirty years.