Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Howard Vollum: Selfless Genius

Howard VollumHoward Vollum, the technology brains behind Tektronix, would have turned 100 on May 31, so it is a fitting occasion, as a Tek alumnus, to reflect on his genius and humanity.

His invention of the modern oscilloscope in the basement of his parents house after serving in the Signal Corps in London during World War II catapulted Vollum into the high technology spotlight. The oscilloscope was critical to exploit the use of semiconductors, though the first oscilloscopes Tektronix sold commercially were used to detect forest fires and downed power lines.

Few people of the dawn of the semiconductor age were mentioned in the same breath as Jack Hewlett and David Packard. Howard Vollum, the Reed College graduate in physics, was one of them.

Like virtually every other employee at Tektronix, I have my favorite Howard Vollum stories. Because my tenure came at the tail-end of his direct involvement in the company he helped to found, some of my favorite stories were ones retold fondly by longer term employees.

One of the most endearing stories about Vollum, which was recounted at his memorial, reflected his selfless humility. As a young man working in a Southeast Portland radio store, Vollum impressed a woman who never forgot his ability to solve her problems with household appliances. Many years later, after Vollum had become a multi-millionaire, the woman kept calling him to fix things. Never one to disappoint a loyal customer, Vollum would drive his unassuming car to her house in the West Hills to repair her vacuum cleaner. What an image. The inventor of the modern oscilloscope bending over to fix a Hoover.

Vollum’s “nothing is too small or insignificant” attitude permeated Tektronix, and employees took their cue from his actions. Over and over, I watched Tektronix employees do extraordinary things, well beyond anyone’s expectations, because it was what Howard would do. That’s true leadership, exerted without a megaphone or press agent.

Another Vollum trait was to wander around the ever-growing number of Tektronix buildings and work benches to see what people were doing. He wasn’t checking on them, he had an inventor’s curiosity that drew ideas of what to build from what people needed on the “next bench.” In fact, it was Vollum’s next-bench insight that helped drive the company’s growth to become Oregon’s largest private employer in the early 1980s.

His focused curiosity also underscores an innate quality in Vollum to look for solutions to everyday, real-time problems. In my public affairs work for Tektronix, I tried to emulate that approach and look for opportunity borne of necessity.

My closest brush with Vollum, a devout Catholic, involved his adamant opposition to abortion. Ordinarily that wouldn’t have been an issue that affected my work, except Vollum felt compelled to communicate his views in strong, unambiguous terms to Oregon Senator Bob Packwood, who was equally committed to abortion rights.

Packwood happened to be the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversaw issues of importance to Tektronix that included corporate taxation, international trade and employee benefits. It didn’t take a political genius to realize Packwood was chafing at biting criticism from the revered founder of Oregon’s largest employer. He challenged me to do something about it.

The irony of the situation was rich. I was hired at Tektronix by my good friend and mentor Chuck Frost, despite raised eyebrows by some of Tek’s senior officials who were staunch Republicans. I was chief of staff for Democratic Congressmen Les AuCoin and Ron Wyden. In fact, in one of my job interviews with a top official, I was asked, “Why would a company like Tektronix hire a Democrat like you?” I don’t exactly remember my answer and maybe it didn’t matter, but I was hired and now had to reconcile a falling out behind a Republican-led company and a top-ranking Republican U.S. senator on an emotion-laced issue.

It wasn’t the first time the company had bumped into inconvenient politics. During the Korean War, the U.S. military apparently wanted to “draft” Vollum back into service because of his technological knowledge. Senior company officials persuaded Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, on his way to becoming a Democrat, to intercede, arguing Vollum was more valuable stretching the capacity of the oscilloscope than monitoring radar in Seoul. It turned out to be a prescient view as Tektronix went on to develop other devices that played – and still play – a valuable role in modern warfare.

My “solution” to the Vollum-Packwood tension was to ask the genius behind the company to retain his viewpoint, but not express it as a company viewpoint. That in itself was pretty impertinent for somebody who struggled to figure out the use of a ripple tank in high school physics, so I didn’t try to press the point and insist that Packwood be invited to Tek headquarters. In those days, Tektronix didn’t invite any political figures to meet with managers or employees.

Vollum evidently agreed and a truce was established that held until he retired as chairman of Tektronix in 1984. No one doubted where Vollum stood on the abortion issue, but he showed great devotion to his company and its needs by not letting his personal view get in the way of working with one of the most influential senators in the country.

In return, Packwood was extremely generous in working with Tektronix officials and me on issues of great importance to the company, including its innovative flexible employee benefits plan.

However, I admire Vollum the most for his willingness to share his fortune, largely out of the public eye. He acted like the money he earned was just a loan to use for good works. While there are vestiges of bequests that bear the Vollum name, many of his significant philanthropic gifts were anonymous. The gift and its purpose were more important to him than the recognition of the giver.

He had the soul of a selfless genius, who made Oregon a different and better place. Just ask any former Tektronix employee.

[You can find out more about Howard Vollum and Tektronix at the VintageTek Museum and by reading Marshall M. Lee’s “Winning with People: The First 40 Years of Tektronix.]

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