Adobe Systems co-founder, Charles “Chuck” Geschke changed the world through desktop publishing. But the impact on those who directly benefited from the longtime Los Altos resident’s wisdom and generosity was just as profound.
“He made it possible for millions of people to better express their creativity and forward their ideas,” said his son John. “That’s, of course, incredibly cool. But he touched many, many people through his generosity beyond his professional life, and I think he was most proud that he used the good fortune in his life to try and make the world a bit better.”
Along with his wife, Nancy, Mr. Geschke – who died April 16 after an ongoing illness – donated millions to nonprofit organizations and universities. The Geschkes also have been long-standing supporters of the Los Altos History Museum.
Mr. Geschke’s impact is vast. His launch of Adobe Systems with fellow Los Altos resident John Warnock introduced Adobe Acrobat, InDesign, Photoshop and other products used the world over. Adobe Systems’ mammoth success places it among Silicon Valley’s greatest companies.
“I consider myself the luckiest man on Earth,” Mr. Geschke said, after the Town Crier named him and his wife Los Altans of the Year for 2003. “An engineer lives to have his idea embodied in a product that impacts the world.”
Warnock mourned the loss of his longtime friend and colleague.
“I could never have imagined having a better, more likable or more capable business partner,” Warnock said in a statement. “Not having Chuck in our lives will leave a huge hole, and those who knew him will all agree.”
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Mr. Geschke’s parents impressed on him the value of education. He earned master’s and associate degrees in mathematics and classics from Xavier University, and a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University. He received a Jesuit education and considered the priesthood before choosing an alternative path. He was a math professor, then transitioned to the field of computer science.
Mr. Geschke met Nan in 1961. They married in 1964 and had three children.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Geschke moved out West to work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The Geschkes moved to Los Altos in 1973. In 1978, he formed the Imaging Sciences Laboratory at PARC to focus research on computer graphics and electronic printing systems. He hired Warnock to help design a device-independent printing protocol named Interpress.
Xerox executives’ indecision about Interpress led Mr. Geschke and Warnock to leave the company. The two formed Adobe Systems in 1982 and developed PostScript, a programming language for describing the appearance of a printed page. Debuting in 1985, PostScript transformed the worldwide printing and publishing industry “from a manual and mechanical process to a fully automated, electronic workflow,” Mr. Geschke described.
Mr. Geschke proved a fair-minded boss as well as a successful tech entrepreneur. He and Warnock employed the “Golden Rule” philosophy in their treatment of employees.
“Chuck was honest, ethical and caring. He was largely responsible for creating the culture that makes Adobe such a nice place to work,” said longtime friend and Adobe employee Ed Taft, a Los Altos Hills resident. Taft played key roles in developing PostScript and the Portable Document Format, or PDF.
Mr. Geschke received numerous honors for his technological and managerial achievements with Adobe. He retired as company president in 2000.
Mr. Geschke’s accomplished and celebrated life had one major dark moment, when he was kidnapped in 1992 from his Adobe headquarters, blindfolded and held for ransom. He was rescued by the FBI after four days, his captors arrested. The harrowing ordeal was chronicled in a four-part series in the Town Crier in 1997, and in the book “Angels Wear Black.”
Although occasionally haunted by the experience, he continued on with his life undeterred. A longtime practicing Catholic, Mr. Geschke said his faith pulled him through those dark days.
Outside Adobe, Mr. Geschke participated on several advisory, business and nonprofit boards, including as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of San Francisco and the computer science advisory board at Carnegie Mellon.
The Los Altos History Museum was a labor of love for the Geschkes. They contributed heavily to its success.
“Los Altos History Museum mourns the loss of a true gentleman whose insights helped shape our exhibitions and whose presence warmed many of our events,” museum officials said in a statement. “He had a wise and gracious spirit and will be greatly missed.”
In addition to his wife of 56 years, Mr. Geschke is survived by two sons, Peter and John, and a daughter, Kathy Orciuoli. Mr. Geschke’s funeral is private, but the family is planning a celebration of his life in the fall.
tributes to Chuck
Liz Nyberg, publisher emeritus, Los Altos Town Crier: "Paul and I mourn the passing of our friend, Chuck. He lived a successful life - success in the corporate world, success in his family life, success in friendships and success in sharing generously with nonprofits locally and far afield. He was a man of ethics, strong principles, humility and a great sense of humor. Chuck and Nan were so deserving to be honored as Los Altans of the Year in 2003 for enriching our community with their efforts."
Shantanu Narayen, chief executive officer, Adobe Systems: "This is a huge loss for the entire Adobe community and the technology industry for whom he has been a guide and hero for decades. ... Chuck instilled a relentless drive for innovation in the company, resulting in some of the most transformative software inventions, including the ubiquitous PDF, Acrobat, Illustrator, Premiere Pro and Photoshop.
As much as his inventions changed the world, it is his focus on people, purpose and culture that has profoundly impacted each of us at Adobe. As Chuck always said, he wanted to create a company where he would want to work. He believed that good ideas come from everywhere in the company, and that it’s not only what we do but how we do it that matters most. He dedicated much of his time and talent to various philanthropies and community organizations throughout his lifetime.
I admired his brilliance, kindness and values that defined his character and am grateful that I had the privilege to know and work with him. His absence will certainly leave a huge hole in my heart. My thoughts are with his wife Nan, his three children and the entire Geschke family."
Ed Taft, retired principal scientist, Adobe Systems: "Chuck said that he liked to hire people smarter than he was. Really, he was very smart, but in a modest way.
"Chuck and Nan have been extremely generous donors of their time and money. Their long-time support of the Los Altos History Museum is just one of many contributions. When they were honored for their philanthropy a few years ago, more than 25 organizations submitted testimonials. [Outstanding Philanthropist, AFP Silicon Valley, 2016]
"I felt like part of the Geschke family since I first met Chuck. When Pamela and I were married in Massachusetts, Chuck and Nan attended our wedding. They have hosted us several times at their summer home in Nantucket. Chuck was always gracious; I was honored to be his friend."
John Geschke, son: "Chuck was a man of deep faith which he leaned on often for strength and guidance. But while he was very spiritual, he was not at all dogmatic. He was progressive in his thinking and his values of empathy, inclusion and trust were applied not just in his personal life but his professional life as well - a consistency that I think is actually really unique.
"He was also a nerd well before being a nerd was cool. And for all the reasons we celebrate nerds now. An intense curiosity in how and why things work. A belief in how technology can improve the world around us. A trust that a person’s status should be determined by their generosity and contributions to the greater good.
"One of the questions that we as his kids would often get was why we didn’t 'follow in his footsteps.' But while it may not be obvious, I think we have in many ways been influenced by his qualities in how we conduct our own lives. Consider that his oldest son Peter is a teacher, which is in line with the deep value that Chuck placed on education as the key to opportunity. He spent his professional life trying to build tools to unlock people’s creative potential and his daughter is a talented designer. Finally, in his professional life but really in all aspects, he was driven by a strong moral compass of uncompromising principles and I chose a career in law and ultimately the software business myself where my role is to apply some of those same qualities. So in many ways, I think we would say we have followed in his very large footsteps and there was room for all of in them."