A life of consequence-Gerald A. Lawson

One should never miss an opportunity to make someone’s day.
I was in the midst of telling a Jerry Lawson story Monday when interrupted by my mobile phone. I didn’t take the call from Joe Saulter, chair of Entertainment Arts Research Inc. in Atlanta because I assumed he was calling about the State of Black Business Forum next week.
At the time, I was describing to a group of Environmental Protection Agency Region 9 managers and scientists how Lawson’s elementary teacher put a clipping of George Washington Carver in front of him. That motivated him to go from Queens to becoming an engineer for Fairchild Semiconductor in the early 1970s.
We were planning their involvement in the second summer session of Potrero Progress, a pilot to demonstrate culturally responsive instruction in mathematics and science. As an outgrowth of the 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology, the first session last summer engaged dozens of top-flight physicians, scientists and researchers with young people from southeast San Francisco.
One of the critical differences was that we actually trusted the ability and interest of the young people, because we have spent so much time with successful black innovators. To a person, they credit the power of that first nudge from a supportive adult to pique their interest in science.
Sitting across from me was Christopher Rollins, an EPA scientist who actually grew up in the Alice Griffith Apartments, colloquially known as Double Rock in the Bayview/Hunters Point; attended International Studies Academy like some of our students; and graduated from the University of California. So it is not an impossible or even improbable path.
I had just met Dr. Jennifer Cohen, an graduate researcher at Johns Hopkins University, with her sister, Supervisor Malia Cohen, a couple of weekends before. She too hailed from Bayview/Hunters Point.
The environmental specialists were all too happy to participate this summer, like the response we’ve gotten from the National Park Service, Presidio Trust, UC-SF and other scientists.
An hour or so passed before I listened to the voicemail. Saulter reported that Gerald A. Lawson had passed. It was a blow and a shock, but I felt a smile.
In a small way, we had brought Lawson into the light, while he could still appreciate it.
Ironically, Joe Saulter had broken out in tears when I first introduced him to Jerry Lawson about six weeks ago. Although a professor of gaming, author of a textbook on game development and chair of the diversity committee for the International Game Developers Association, he had been clueless when I asked him if he knew who Jerry Lawson was.
I had been the same way two years ago while presenting the Soul of Technology exhibition in Palo Alto City Hall. We had featured Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame members Dr. Frank Greene, and Roy Clay Sr. along with large-format graphics pioneer Ron L. Jones.
But I didn’t mention Lawson. As soon as I learned about him, I rushed out to his home in Santa Clara with a video camera to get details of how he created the Channel F, the first cartridge video game console, for Fairchild Semiconductor.
And we incorporated the footage in the documentary Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge.
With Joe Saulter, we arranged for Lawson to be recognized during the 2th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a trip that drew a front page article in the San Jose Mercury News by Mike Cassidy.
Videographer William Hammons II helped me document that trip, which we are turning into another full-length documentary A Great Day in Gaming.
Will had gone down to visit Lawson just a few days ago. When I called him, he shared how happy Gerry had been to have the interaction with his successors.
During his talk at GDC, Lawson related that he had felt bad that he didn’t know of any blacks that followed him in the game development business. While there, he met several hundred, including Rob Miles, customer relations manager at Sega of America, who recalled meeting Lawson when he was eight years old.
It underscores the importance of highlighting the technological contributions of African-Americans. Rob has spent two decades in gaming, all the while undergirded by the knowledge that an African-American had been a pioneer of the field even when he didn’t see any others around.
Jerry moved to the next dimension in the knowledge that his accomplishments had been acknowledged. Cassidy’s story included comments from a number of industry luminaries about the importance of Lawson’s work.
And Lawson got to meet Gordon Bellamy, the African-American executive director of IGDA.
My regret was that Lawson’s mind was still so inventive and creative that he was still light years ahead of people 50 years his junior. So we don’t know what else he had in store.
But we do know that a group of innovators learned how deeply they belonged on the cutting edge because they met Jerry Lawson on that Great Day in Gaming.
Rest in peace, Jerry.

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