Thursday, May 13, 2021

Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke dead at 81

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Charles “Chuck” Geschke, co-founder of the iconic Silicon Valley company Adobe Inc. and prominent cheerleader of downtown San Jose, died Friday at age 81.

The longtime Los Altos resident founded Adobe in 1982 with a colleague from Xerox, John Warnock, and served in several high-profile roles until his retirement in 2000. The duo is credited with developing the Portable Document Format technology, or PDFs.

“He was a famous businessman, the founder of a major company in the U.S. and the world, and of course he was very, very proud of that and it was huge achievement in his life, but it wasn’t his focus — really, his family was,” his wife, Nancy “Nan” Geschke, 78, said when reached by phone Saturday. “He always called himself the luckiest man in the world.”

The executive first came across computer science practically by accident. While teaching math at John Carroll University in the 1960s, he was upset when he had to fail a master’s student out of the program, Nan Geschke recalled. About a year later, the student called to say he’d discovered computer programming and would love to teach Chuck Geschke the ropes — informal lessons that soon led him to pursue a PhD in the subject.

After graduating with a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University, Geschke began working at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where he met Warnock. The duo broke out on their own in 1982 to found Adobe, developing software together that helped fuel the desktop publishing revolution.

Geschke received various national recognitions for his contributions to the industry over the years, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama in 2009, an honor he shared with Warnock.

Yet he wore the mantle of success lightly, recalled former San Jose mayor and businessman Tom McEnery in a phone call. McEnery likened the founder’s long-term partnership with Warnock to other famed Silicon Valley friendships such as Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

The Adobe partners relocated their headquarters to downtown San Jose in 1996, partially wanting to put the city on the map as an important place in Silicon Valley, McEnery said. They also supported the founding of the city’s Tech Museum of Innovation, now called the Tech Interactive, two years later.

“What he and Adobe did for San Jose — turning things that were ideas into concrete action — made Chuck Geschke just a very, very good man,” McEnery said.

In part because he was in his 40s when he cofounded Adobe, Geschke was committed to being a dependable partner and father in spite of his workload, his wife said. While employees were told they could work after dinner if they had to, they were expected to first “go home to dinner with your family,” she recalled.

The Geschkes suffered several traumas over the decades, including the death of a fourth child at birth and Chuck Geschke’s dramatic 1992 kidnapping that made national news.

Arriving to work one morning, two men seized Chuck Geschke, then 52, at gunpoint and whisked him away to Hollister, where he was held for four days. A suspect caught with $650,000 in ransom money eventually led police to the hideout where he was held captive, the AP reported at the time.

After retiring, Geschke remained on the Adobe board until 2020 and otherwise dedicated himself largely to philanthropy, his wife said. He also previously served on the boards for the San Francisco Symphony and the Commonwealth Club.

For fun, the couple frequently golfed together in Indian Wells and Nantucket.

Despite his illustrious career, Geschke always held the view that much of his success had to do with good timing and a healthy dose of luck, according to his wife. More than a year of declining health made his passing Friday a blessing, she added.

“He was really a humble, humble man — I can say that, as his wife,” Nan Geschke said with a laugh. “He was very proud of his success, of course, but he was very circumspect about how much he had to do with that.”

In addition to his wife of 56 years, Geschke is survived by three children and seven grandchildren.

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