My Back Pages

Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
Bob Dylan

Yesterday, I had the sad privilege of farewelling an old friend, with his family, and speak words that I know many in the Fox community will share. I repeat them here for that reason, and because several people yesterday asked me for the text.

Walt, it is the end of our times with you. But Colin and I hope you and Sherri are piloting a boat together, somewhere under the stars.

In 2015, I also had to write out my farewell to Sherri, although at the time I shared it only with Walt.  I don’t think I was trying to convey anything on behalf of the community, in that moment of writing; it was just my personal heartbreak. I think it’s time to set those feelings free, now, and include both tributes here.

Walt Kennamer, 1957-2023

The thing about Walt is that there were so many things about Walt.

I think I am officially here to talk about Walt from the point of view of his Fox years, and the Fox community, and I’m honored to do that.  I want to do justice to that task.

But Walt and Sherri were family for Colin and me; for a time they were almost my only family.  So, there are things beyond Fox that I will need to say. I think many of you in his “real” family will relate to them, and need to say them too, so I apologize if they seem repetitive in this gathering.  But the thing about Walt is how these human aspects influenced how he acted at Fox Software, and how he influenced the Fox community.

I will start the same way Walt started and ended his forward to my Fox for Macintosh book, by invoking a different animal:  

Walt, yes, you owed me a goat, for matchmaking services rendered.  But, in case you are listening, that debt was truly paid in full by all the times we shared as couples together.  

Mostly we did nothing much.  I have almost no photos, because we sat and cuddled and ate and read and watched movies and listened to music, and talked about other food and other movies and other music, and books.  The thing about Walt was that he knew how to do nothing so very well. We  treasured those times.

The  thing about Walt was that he was brilliant but completely self-effacing about his brilliance.  I remember hearing him describe somebody else as having a “Stradivarius of a mind”, and loving his use of the expression at the same time as realizing he didn’t think of himself the same way and wondering how that could be.  But it was.

I remember one photo of Walt that I’ve seen, with a group of speakers at a FoxPro developer’s conference, beaming like a proud papa – although he was definitely not as old as many of us in the group.  You could see him aware of and appreciating every other person there, each for his or her own quality.  He nurtured all of us.

One way he did it was by a special caliber and style of instruction.  I remember him finding me at his kitchen table at 3 in the morning, stuck on a particular coding problem.  I couldn’t articulate it, I was so tired and into it at that point, but he grasped it.  He didn’t tell me what to do, he neatly and quietly described a time he was in a similar quandary.  In a few minutes I was calmer, because of his comradeship and empathy, but I could also place my problem in a whole spectrum of problems, and I could also see the beauty of the problem and of a whole field of problems.  So, I could not only solve it, but solve it in a good way.  And now I wanted to go deeper into that field,  instead of just making a problem go away.

This is a hard thing to describe but it is a thing about Walt, a thing he did, and not just for programmers.  Colin has a story about a game of Go he lost to Walt.  Colin lost, but Walt re-framed the ending of the game in a way that probably helped make Colin a better Go player along with giving him a different context for the loss that made it a good loss.

The only literary argument I ever even sort-of won with Walt wasn’t even a correction of his own citation, it was a correction of something Dr. Dave Fulton had said as relayed by Walt. Even then, Walt really won, because he gently reminded me of the circumstances in which Dr. Dave said it, and how pressed he was at the time, so it shouldn’t have mattered to me that it was wrong. He didn’t make me feel bad, and he taught me something.

I am not sure what the right word is, for this quality of mind and fellowship and empathy that Walt had:  It might be chivalry, or gallantry, or nobility, or graciousness.  An old word seems to fit, to describe somebody with Walt’s appreciation for the past and his ability to call it into relevance, when considering even the most modern of issues.

Whatever it was, it was not a romantic attitude.  Walt didn’t see anyone or anything, through rose-colored glasses.  He could totally master a romantic gesture – I only know because Sherri told me stories – but he was very clear-eyed and his decisions tended to be coldly rational.  He could be very funny about them at the same time.  Walt was the only quasi-survivalist that I can imagine making his choices sound amusing.

Back to programmers.  Sherri’s code was insightful and sometimes even dazzling, but it was like mine:  we both really wanted to get a job done.  Walt always got the job done, but he was particularly interested in the tools and structures that supported the code.  The job was the immediate problem, but there was usually a more existential problem surrounding the job.   This awareness is one of the things that he and Colin shared, I think, but Walt’s perspective was truly unique.

He came to prominence in the Fox Community, while still at Ernst & Young and probably dabbling in code on the side, for writing SNAP!.   SNAP! was a documentation generator.  Something programmers could use to understand their job more deeply. It eventually morphed into FoxDoc, and became part of the FoxPro product.  Once he joined Fox Software, his emphasis on creating tools and his understanding of developer thought processes was central to how he fostered the software product, and the company, and the community.  

It was barely a month after he joined Fox Software as COO, by the way, that he wrote to me with a proposal for archiving discussion threads on CompuServe FoxForum.  His only specific instructions were typically Walt: exclude the jello shot recipes, although as he said “they had their place”, assurance that the archives “didn’t say nasty things about Dave’s mother”, and “edit the threads with an inexperienced FoxPro user in mind”.  A mix of clear-eyed direction and humor, plus an evident desire to nurture others.

The FoxForum archive eventually became a useful tool, and because it was, Walt felt, and radiated, joy.

Walt’s joy in tools went far beyond the programming world.  Colin and I are the proud owners and regular users of Walt’s first-ever chopping board.  It was his first, but it is a beauty.  He started by identifying, studying, and gathering the necessary devices and materials he would need to delve into woodworking, and then he mastered his craft and set to work.

The thing about Walt was that he could do this, in almost any domain.  It wasn’t necessarily joyful.  For instance: he detested exercise.  Still, he determined that he needed exercise goals, identified the proper conditions that would make him most likely to achieve those goals, and set about it.

It doesn’t really matter how many things I tell you about Walt, or that you know about Walt.  For me, it boils down to this:  There are so very many things about him.

I don’t ever peel garlic, or hear about sous vide, or see cassoulet on a menu, without thinking of Walt.

Colin and I will wait to applaud the accountants at the end of movie credits, to honor Walt.

And if that civilization-ending comet ever does arrive, we will get the best bottle of Scotch we can find, and toast that comet, in our best imitation of how Walt planned to handle that scenario.  And in very loving memory of his sharing his plan with us.

Sherri Bruhn Kennamer, 1959-2015

I first met Sherri on line. The bond we formed, like so many others on CompuServe, including the one I formed with Colin, my husband, was based on arguing over code.

But with Sherri it was a little different – like so much was, with Sherri. We started talking on the phone, pretty frequently. One day I received an envelope with a floppy disk containing all of the FoxBase code for the application she was working on, and a polaroid picture of her. You can see the pin holes in the bottom of it; I kept it on the wall next to my monitor. Almost nobody did something like that. We were all just lines of text to each other, which is hard to imagine now.

I never knew why she did that, it was out of the blue – like so much was, with Sherri. I earnestly studied what she sent, and tried to understand the intelligence and creativity that was so different from mine, and so interesting to me. And naturally we went on arguing.

Then one day everything changed. It was, I think, the day after Paige died, or maybe a few days. She had called right away, but I had no clue; I just opened the door and there was Sherri. She had driven from Colorado to Santa Rosa, California, and there she was. It was, again, completely out of the blue. It took me a moment to recognize the physical person who was in front of me, and connect it with that photograph, and then we opened our arms and there she was. She decided to do something, she acted on it, and it was right.

I will say that Sherri had a lot of self-reliance and pride, but also a lot of doubts about herself. A full and fierce sense of her own worth and competence, and other people’s admiration of her, were paired with these doubts, in a way that I recognized.  I ached for her when the doubts won out, as they sometimes did.

They didn’t win out for long. Walt and Sherri gave me a lot of credit for matchmaking that I don’t think I deserved. She would have asked him out no matter what I said or didn’t say. It might have taken little longer, but that event was meant to be.

Around this time Sherri and I started having actual face time with other members of our CompuServe FoxForum community, mostly at developer conferences. It’s time for me to speak about what happened at one of those conferences, which I haven’t ever talked about in mixed company. The women of FoxForum had an exclusive society. I’m not going to talk about the details, and really we made more of it than it was, just to annoy the male members of the forum, who of course vastly outnumbered us. It started with a private acronym we used to talk about them, which was JIQ. It didn’t have a secret handshake; it had a secret database, which didn’t actually exist, we just hinted that it did. We came up with the idea while sitting in a sauna together. No secret handshake, but a secret hand symbol, which was a fist, with each of us being a digit in the fist. And one evening at DevCon we decided we’d take a photograph of our Fist-selves, which I still have and deeply cherish.

You can’t see me in the photograph, because I’m lying down in front, as the Thumb. There were deeply important reasons for each digit assignment, which you may or may not care to know, but may be able to guess if you know all of us. You can see Jacquie Wheeler, the Index Finger, Nancy Jacobsen, the Fourth Finger, and Blaise Mitsutama as the Pinky.

And there, not being in actual Fist position because – as happened so often with Sherri – she had a different, brilliant idea at the last minute which she sprung on us – is Sherri. The Middle Finger.

Our lives changed a lot after that, in ways none of us could imagine at the time. Some things didn’t change at all. No matter where in the world I was, and that changed a lot, Sherri was a constant in my life. Later, Sherri and Walt as a couple were a lodestone for Colin and me as a couple. After a while, the arguing was more about cooking techniques than coding techniques, but it always felt essentially the same. It always felt like home.

Then this. Like so much with Sherri, out of the blue.  Not completely understandable to me, although I try, that she wouldn’t want to say goodbye.

I imagine that she thought about what she really wanted ,and she made a decision and acted on it: she really didn’t want to see herself and the memories of herself diminished in any way for other people. But whether it was out of self-doubt, or pride, or simply her way of loving us, I don’t know.

In the end, I want to let her decision stand. I don’t want to say goodbye to her either. And I don’t know that I can, because the habit of knowing her as a person who is not physically there but still completely present for me is too strong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *