Mad Dog 21/21: In Memory of Hesh Wiener
April 29, 2019 Timothy Prickett Morgan
“Stop complaining. The only thing worse than writing so many obituaries is having one written about you. Let me assure you.”
If my friend and mentor, Hesh Wiener, were alive today, that is what he would say to me with a laugh. And of course, as always, Hesh, who had no intention of leaving this world quite yet, would have been right.
We have suffered our share of losses in the IBM midrange in recent years, and here at The Four Hundred, the publication that Hesh created in the wake of the inaugural June 21, 1988, AS/400 announcements. Hesh was convinced that the complexities of the system would not be obvious to the vast base of System/36 users and the opportunity for growth was substantial for IBM in the midrange replacing that large base with a System/38-ish machine but with a much more reasonable price. These were good bets, and Hesh made them and also made a substantial investment – years of salary as I unlearned bad habits and learned a few new tricks – in some country kid who moved to the big city to become a writer.
“I know I was hard on you some of the time, but someone had to make you grow up.”
The company that Hesh created and that fed and clothed me for seven years, Technology News of America, was a niche publisher focused on mainframes and minicomputers that actually sold subscriptions for a living. If you didn’t say something important, and worth money, people would not resubscribe and none of us would eat. This was not the kind of publishing that people do today, and my style reflects my unique upbringing in IT journalism, which is without question very different from what my peers have lived through.
“Tim, where is the so what? Why should I care about this story or anything that you are saying?”
Working for Hesh was quite an experience, and without a question the very foundation of my professional career. Just before Hesh’s birthday last summer and right after the 30th anniversary of the AS/400 launch, I told the story about my job interview with Hesh, which is still one of the strangest days of my life and was the reason I decided to work for him rather than any of the other few job offers I had back in the recession of 1989. This is the first real job I ever had, and despite many changes over the three decades, The Four Hundred is still doing the work that Hesh originally conceived of and that we carry on every day.
“I don’t care if you are right or wrong. What I do care about is if you are consistent. If you are always wrong, and we all know it, we know what to do. If you are always right, we know what to do. But all things considered, I would prefer if you were always right.”
Hesh was unlike any human being I have ever met, and his Hawaiian shirts, red sneakers, and handlebar mustache were just a kind of anti-uniform that hid the seriousness with which he approached life and all of its layers.
We were both raised in the Catskills – me, near the edge in New Jersey, he in the heart of the old school Catskill region where all of the famous hotels are that catered to the New York summer crowd, like in Dirty Dancing, and in his case, at that literal same time. His family on his mother’s side – the more important one in the Jewish culture – were all fish mongers, selling to the hotels where he eventually worked as a teenager before attending MIT, where he graduated in 1969 with an engineering and political science degree in – I am not making this up – waging nuclear war. Hesh wanted to understand the stupidity of nukes fully, I presume. He was always a keen student, and one with real insight and depth; he was always much smarter than me, no question about it. I think it is safe to say that I am his star apprentice, and that we were both always equally proud of each other. He was a father to me, and I his son. We worked in the fields together, we created something and it is still alive to this day, three decades later. I wish I had spent more time fishing with him, since he was good at it and I suck, except for that one day on the Beaverkill River where I caught a big trout on the first cast and he came up empty handed for the day. But what a great day we had, smoking cigars and being outside in the mountains we both loved in the Delaware River watershed we also both loved. . . .
“Beginner’s luck. And the only decent cast you did all day.”
There are so many one-liners from Hesh that are part of my own lexicon and my own story that it is hard to separate his narrative arc from my own. And that was perhaps the greatest gift that Hesh ever gave me: the insistence on the narrative arc, no matter what you were dealing with.
“Everything tells a story, everything has a narrative arc. It has a beginning and a middle and an end. It’s as true for a 3380 mainframe disk drive as it is for you.”
And, for you, I am sad to say, my old friend. Hesh Wiener passed away on April 7, and by the time I heard he was in the hospital – possibly from a stroke, I still do not know – he was already gone. All I know is that he had some partial paralysis when he talked to our long-time accountant, who happened to be trying to reach him because of the looming tax deadlines on April 15. Hesh’s health had been deteriorating for some time, I knew, but we had not seen each other in a few years. We both left New York City – Hesh for Syracuse in Upstate New York to be near family, and me for western North Carolina – so it was harder to do what we loved to do, which was go out to a steak joint and drink too much and eat too much and, when it was possible, smoke too much. As is the Jewish custom, the burial happened very quickly after his death, and as I expected – and am annoyed by – in accordance with his wishes he was interred privately at the Jewish Cemetery in Cortland, New York.
Hesh lives on in me, but it wasn’t supposed to happen yet, and not that way and no so fast. That’s all I know. I wish the universe would have let us have dinner and let me say thank you to him one more time.
“There goes the nose as I whirled it.”