A Man From Montclair is the subject of a new book that seems destined for the big screen. “Unstoppable: The Unlikely Story of a Silicon Valley Godfather” is the story of Roy Clay Sr., whose computer programming expertise helped make Hewlett-Packard a household name.
Clay began writing code in the 1950s – rare for anyone in those early days of computer programming and unheard of for an African American. He was born in 1929 in Kinloch, Missouri, a once bustling black town. His thirst for learning was supported by his loving teachers and parents; but in nearby Ferguson, where he mowed lawns for cash, racism often surfaced. In fact, Clay was once handcuffed by the police and driven to the outskirts of town, for doing nothing more than drinking a soda outside a grocery store.
“Don’t ever let me catch you in Ferguson again,” the officer said, calling Clay a racial slur. This incident was a watershed moment for Clay. His mother told him that he should never let racism be an excuse for not being successful in life. Clay’s real role model, however, was his sister.
“She was older, and she had graduated from college, and I looked up to her,” he said. So Clay enrolled at Saint Louis University in 1946 and graduated in 1951 with a degree in mathematics – the first African American to graduate from the school. He got married and went to work as a programmer at McDonnell Aircraft Corp. before being hired at what is now known as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
In 1962 he was working for Control Data Corp. on a computer language called Fortran that worked well with numerical and scientific computation. It was then that he caught the attention of David Packard.
“He found me,” Clay said. “He came to my house and said, ‘How much do you owe for your house?’ He gave me the money to buy my house and I came to work for him.
What Clay did at Hewlett-Packard made him a legend. He led a team of engineers in creating the 2116A minicomputer, the first to be sold by HP and only the second 16-bit computer on the world market. Imagine taking a machine as big as a coin and shrinking it down to the size of a typewriter, and with a more reliable operating system. Yet Clay’s pioneering days were just beginning. In 1973, a friend convinced him to run for Palo Alto city council.
“I didn’t think I was lucky,” he said. “There had never been a black man on the board, and I didn’t think I would get the votes.”
Clay then won a seat and held it for six years, eventually becoming Palo Alto’s first African-American vice mayor in 1976 and 1977.
Some of Clay’s best stories come from his early years as the first black member of the Olympic Club in San Francisco. “I didn’t want to register,” he recalls. “I told my wife it cost too much money and I didn’t think I was going to fit in. She said ‘No, I want you to join. It’s an honor to be invited. ”
Those early days as a member of the city’s sports and social club in the late 1980s could be difficult.
“I had a gun in my golf bag,” Clay admitted. “I thought I was going to be attacked; but those who loved me protected me.
Clay went on to be the first African American to serve on the Olympic Club’s board of directors. To learn more about Roy Clay Sr.’s inspiring journey, check out the website unstoppableroyclay.com.
Update from Rockridge: Berkeley’s popular Starter Bakery is set to open this fall in the former Jules Thin Crust Pizza store at 5804 College Ave. for its artisan breads, pies, cookies and croissants.
Around Montclair: Fans of Italian Colors bartender Alex Aguilar may be surprised to learn that he is one of approximately 18,000 Mayans who live in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood and throughout the Bay Area. Aguilar spent seven years in Guatemala and another seven in Mexico before moving to Oakland. He has worked in the food and beverage industry since childhood, including summers on a coffee farm. He speaks mam, the Mayan language which he says is very different from Spanish, and says that a good Mayan cocktail would not contain tequila, but rum.
Ginny Prior can be followed on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and on ginnyprior.com. Email him at email@example.com.