Andy Grove: The Reluctant Mensch

March 22, 2016

By Stephen B. Shepard
March 22, 2016

Andy Grove and I were just a year apart in college, but we didn’t get to know each other until many years later, when I was the editor-in-chief of Business Week magazine and he was the CEO of Intel Corporation, the Silicon Valley colossus he had built. Of course, I knew his story. A penniless refugee from Communist Hungary who had survived the Nazi occupation as a child, Andy came to the U.S. in 1957, enrolling as a chemical engineering student at the City College of New York, which was tuition-free at the time.

He graduated at the top of his class, earned a PhD from Berkeley, and helped launch Intel. In 1997 he was named Time’s Man of the Year — surely one of the great rags-to-riches stories in recent American history.

Perhaps because we both were engineering graduates of City College, we hit it off. He was tough and confrontational, but also witty. He was opinionated but respected good journalism. And he always ran scared. A later book he wrote was aptly called Only The Paranoid Survive, which stemmed from one of his favorite aphorisms: “ Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” Andy told the story of his own survival in his poignant 2001 memoir, Swimming Across.

Over the years, I always went to see him when I was in California, and we shared lunches and dinners in New York. We talked about technology, journalism, education, and healthcare issues, including his treatment for prostate cancer, which he had written about.

He admired Business Week’s technology coverage and often incorporated material from our stories into his speeches. That, of course, didn’t stop him from complaining when he didn’t like something we wrote.

In one of our chats, around the year 2000, I casually suggested that he ought to make a major donation to City College to name the engineering school in his honor. After all, I said, the College played a major role in his success. Besides, it was the right thing to do. I knew immediately I had crossed the line. I was always careful to keep my distance from people we wrote about, and I never had asked anyone for anything. Andy didn’t much like the idea anyway, waving me off in his gruff style with a comment about not wanting to put his name on some damn building. Still, I decided to recuse myself from editing any major stories thereafter on Intel.

In 2004, when I was ready to announce that I was leaving Business Week to start a new graduate school of journalism at the City University of New York and Andy was about to retire as Chairman of Intel, I broached the subject again. He still said no, but he seemed more receptive, adding that Greg Williams, then president of City College, had sent him a copy of his book, a memoir about his boyhood growing up thinking he was white, only to find out he had an African-American father. Greg and I knew each other, and I mentioned that Andy had liked his book and that the two of us had conversations about the engineering school.

I didn’t think much more about it, until about a year later, when I ran into Greg Williams.

He told me that Andy had just met the young man who had won the Intel Science Prize, which was given annually to a high school student who had undertaken a major science project. The prestigious prize came with a generous college scholarship, and it was obvious that the winner, David Bauer, could have gone to any college in the country. But largely because his mentor on the project was a City College professor, David decided to attend CCNY. Andy was so moved by David’s story, rekindling his own experience 45 years earlier, that he told Greg he would donate $25 million to City College, which would name the engineering school in his honor: the Grove School of Engineering. I was stunned.

I e-mailed Andy my congratulations, and a day later, October 26, 2005, came an e-mail reply, which said in part: “…you were an important factor in strengthening the bridge between me and CCNY, and specifically getting me to pay attention to Greg. So you should take personal pleasure from the outcome.” The gift was officially announced the next day.

And so, months later, I sat in the Great Hall at City College for the naming ceremony.

Reluctant mensch that he was, Andy had quietly concluded that, yes, it was the right thing to do. Three years later, David Bauer graduated from CCNY with honors in chemical engineering and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.

Stephen B. Shepard was editor-in-chief of Business Week from 1984 to 2005. He was the founding dean of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism from 2005 to 2013. His memoir, “Deadlines and Disruption,” was published in 2012.

Originally published by The Huffington Post