Mar 16, 2014

When 50 Was Young

I turned 50 this past year. It doesn’t feel old like I imagined when I was half this age. There are a lot of people older than me in the analog world. Most will tell you that it takes many years to really get good at analog (despite what I wrote earlier) and the skills don’t become obsolete. So 50 is not necessarily old in this business. And it’s certainly too young to die.
Bob Widlar died at age 53. His life was always run at a different speed than most people. He “retired” at age 33 but didn’t really stay retired – he continued to work his entire life. Many will say that his lifestyle led to his early death. But I’ve looked into his ancestry and think that he was lucky to live as long as he did – not because of his lifestyle but because of hereditary heart trouble.
  • His father, Walter Widlar died at 45.
  • His grandfather, Walter Widlar, Sr. lived to the ripe old age of 84, but Walter, Sr’s brother Leonard Widlar, Jr. died at age 24.
  • Leonard Widlar, Sr. died at age 36.
  • A generation before that, Jacob Widlar (born in Germany) died at age 45.
  • Bob’s maternal grandmother, Marie (Zak) Vithous died of a stroke at age 53.
Bob’s siblings are still around. They don’t seem as “prickly” – to use Carl Nelson’s description – as Bob. I’ve communicated with one of his brothers and his sister. And with their gracious help (and the thorough research of Bo Lojek), I was able to see that Bob Widlar was just carrying on an old family tradition. 

As the decades pass, we look back at Bob Widlar as a larger-than-life character – almost as if he arrived spontaneously and fully formed with his brilliance and shall we say “unique” personality. But everyone is the child of two people who pass on certain traits and teach certain values. Bob Widlar’s Bohemian ancestor’s came from his mother’s side. His maternal grandfather, Frantisek (Frank) Vithous was born in Bohemia, which was once part of Austria and is now in the Czech Republic. Frank came to America in 1902 and settled in an area known as “Little Bohemia” around the Clark-Fulton area of the West Side of Cleveland. Frank and his wife Marie lived on W. 50th Street in a house which had been owned by the Zaks, Marie’s family. The house stayed in the Vithous family for almost 100 years.

Marie died in 1934, as mentioned above, at the young age of 53. Because Frank was not a regular churchgoer and was behind on his tithes, the local Catholic Church refused to conduct the funeral ceremony or to allow Marie to be buried in the Catholic Cemetery. Frank’s Bohemian temper flared and he and his sons left the Catholic Church. Frank’s daughter, Mary, eventually returned to the Catholic Church in her adulthood, primarily because she had married into a very devout Catholic family – the Widlar’s.

Frank then moved out to the country, purchased five acres of property on Abbey Road in Strongsville, Ohio where he grew and sold crops and cultivated grapes for his homemade wine. He also made dandelion wine in his bathtub, even during prohibition. See what I mean about the family tradition? Frank believed that an inside toilet was unsanitary and in poor taste, so even though the farmhouse on Abbey Road had a bathroom, Frank refused to use the inside toilet and relied on the outhouse for all of his life. Frank refused to learn to speak English and in order to communicate with him; his children had to speak Bohemian. Mary said that the only English phrase he ever spoke clearly was: “This country for shit.”

That was the wild side, the Bohemian. But Bob Widlar was brilliant and incomparably hard working. That came from the other side, the Widlar side.

Walter Widlar, Jr.
Mary went to work as a stenographer for Eddie Binkowski’s furniture business where she first met Walter Widlar, who had a second (or maybe a third?) job repairing radios for Eddie. Walter was handsome and charming. Mary shot rubber bands out the window at Walt to get his attention. After a whirlwind romance that lasted all of one month, they were married on August 24, 1935.

Mary and the boys, 1947
Mary and Walt started their family with three little rambunctious boys: Tom, Bob and Jim. The world of electronics surrounded Bob since birth: he became the first baby monitored by wireless radio. Jim Widlar remembered a 19” black-and-white TV at Eddie Binkowski’s store that no one could fix. So Bob brought it home, took it apart and replaced everything with the circuits from their 7” TV and then they had a perfectly new 19”model!

They moved several times in the 1940’s as Walt’s jobs took him from Lakewood, Ohio to New London, Connecticut; back to Lakewood, then to McAllen, Texas and finally, in 1948, to Parma, Ohio. The move to New London occurred during the build-up to World War II. Walt worked for a few years at the Underwater Sound Laboratory before returning to Ohio. According to Bo Lojek, the lab was managed by William Shockley.

A self-taught radio engineer, Walter Widlar worked for the WGAR (1220 AM) radio station and designed pioneering ultra high frequency transmitters. The 1951 West Park Roster lists Walt Widlar as member No. 99 with an address in Parma, Ohio. The same roster lists Bob Widlar, no call number, as member 104. Walt Widlar, W8ERI, was a Cleveland ham operator and worked for WGAR on their mobile unit with an FCC license of Radio Telephone operator license First Class. He also worked for Bird Electronics in Cleveland and two of his developments were the sonobouy and the Bird Model 43 trueline wattmeter.

When Walter died, Bob Widlar was only 15. They didn’t have life insurance, so there was very little money. Ray Bird, owner of Bird Electronics where Walt worked, paid Walt’s salary for several years after he died. (As you may recall, Bob Noyce paid Bob Widlar’s salary for several months “for reasons unknown” after he left Fairchild.) That’s as much a testament to the character of Ray Bird as it is to the character of Walter Widlar.

By that time, Bob Widlar’s interest in electronics was firmly in place and he had many hours of quality experience by then. But 15 is a critical age in a young man’s life and losing that fatherly influence certainly affected him. Without that check and balance, the Bohemian side came to life. Bob had some issues as a teenager, according to his brother. It was probably a good thing to join the service.

I imagine that Bob Widlar’s ancestors on both sides would have been proud of the way he lived his life. Half for the strong-willed independence (consequences be damned) and half for the hard work and brilliant inventions. And even though a great many of his ancestors died before the young age of 50, it was still too young.


  1. Nice job, Todd . (Bob's sister)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Todd, Thanks for remembering Brother Bob.

      Jim Widlar aka W8ERI