Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email
From the President

Steve Jobs and Me

By Jon Streeter
President, State Bar of California

Jon StreeterShortly after my election to the State Bar Presidency in July, I took my family to a vacation spot in Lake Tahoe that we have visited for a week every August for each of the past 18 years. I recommend vacations. There is no manual or rule that lays out this recommendation, but I have always believed that taking regular downtime with family and working hard at having a well-rounded life is essential to anyone’s job satisfaction. It has certainly made me a better lawyer. So I am now officially recommending it.

Besides, I have had a few memorable vacations. After sifting through some old memories, I thought now might be an opportune time to write about the week I spent at summer camp with Steve Jobs. The scene was Stanford Sierra Camp along Fallen Leaf Lake, near South Lake Tahoe. Steve never finished college, but his wife, Laurene, is a graduate of the Stanford Business School, and in August of 1996, the Jobs family joined the annual pilgrimage to Fallen Leaf that some 60 alumni families make each week of the summer.

Steve and his family were new to camp. The Streeters were fairly new to the place, too. I started going with my wife, Dorine, and our two young daughters, Hillary and Lindsey, only a couple of years before. Hillary, then four years old, was roughly the same age as Steve’s son, Reed. I first encountered Steve at the Sierra Camp beach, a postcard-perfect place known as Baby Beach because of its expanse of shallow water, perfect for wading. I recall distinctly that it was a quiet and sunny morning, and the beach was virtually empty, except for us. We both sat reading, while our children played in the water a few yards away.

We eventually fell into conversation, and after a few moments chatting about our kids, I was struck by how normal and grounded Steve seemed ― just another dad, like me, preoccupied with the usual things at that stage of life. We talked about what the future might hold for our little ones and how, one day, with hard work, they might end up at Stanford. I recall Steve telling me with evident pride how his older daughter, Lisa, then about to enter college, had worked hard and accomplished her goal of admission to Harvard. Steve was already famous by then, but since we were both at camp as a respite to our work lives, I never let on that I knew all about his celebrated career, including the fact that he had named the first Apple computer after Lisa.

Although my first memory of Steve is one of utter normality, as the week went on I began to notice his signature style and its powerful effect on others. He padded around camp in flip-flops and a loose-fitting Patagonia shirt that looked like it needed a good wash, an outfit that had a certain stylish sloppiness to it, and at meal times he insisted on following a strict vegan diet, frequently and flamboyantly pointing out how unhealthful the standard fare on the menu was. He was not rude or obnoxious about it, but he was certainly insistent, always ready with an impressive knowledge of detail to back up his opinions on food. And this was long before the days of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

One day early in the week, on a group hike to Lake Angora, a relatively painless 1,200-foot ascent that is traditional for campers looking to take it easy, Steve began to poke fun at Beth Setrakian, who had just started a gourmet cookie company. Beth came in for the same treatment Steve had notoriously given to John Sculley, the Pepsi executive who took his job at Apple; according to Steve, Beth was simply selling sugar, an unhealthful business with no redeeming quality. The fact that the cookies were far superior to anything on the market at the time, and looked great as well, reflecting Beth’s acute aesthetic sense ― which one would have thought Steve might like ― made no difference. In Steve’s mind, there could never be anything intrinsically valuable to a consumable product with sugar in it. Rising to the challenge, Beth told Steve that by week’s end she would demonstrate her appreciation for gastronomic delights in a way that even he could appreciate.

Meanwhile, upon reaching Lake Angora, most of our group decided to have something refreshing to drink at the little lemonade stand where day hikers traditionally stop before returning to Fallen Leaf. Not Steve. He and Bert Keely, a brilliant technologist at then-high-flying Silicon Graphics in Mountain View, continued on to the other side of the lake, found their way to the top of a 60-foot sheer wall outcropping that abuts the lake, and jumped. I remember watching in amazement as the celebrated Steve Jobs plunged off a cliff into the water below like a reckless teenage boy, legs flapping and whooping all the way down.

Later, Steve told us that at the top he realized he had to figure out how to jump without ruining his watch, which was not waterproof, so he removed his sneakers, tied them together, tucked his watch firmly in the toe of one shoe, packed it in snugly with a sock, threw the shoes in first, and then retrieved them after jumping. Most of us who watched were struck by the audacious risk-taking we had just seen from these two self-styled cliff divers ― I doubt if their shareholders would have approved ― but of all the things he did that afternoon, Steve seemed most proud of the elegant solution he’d found to waterproof his watch.

That evening, the Provost for Undergraduate Education gave an after-dinner talk about how the university was setting up a computer network for the undergraduates, wiring the dorms with Apple computers. I thought Steve would be in the audience for sure, but he was nowhere to be seen (he was then in his “wilderness” years, at NeXT Computer, having started Pixar not long before). It turned out Steve was in a recreation room next door, filled with disappointed kids, unable to watch a Disney film because the projector was broken. When I wandered in, there was Steve, on his back, underneath the projector in the posture of a car mechanic, intent on fixing it. When the movie flickered back on a few minutes later, Steve had saved the day, to the delight of the kids and to the relief of the parents.

The next day came Beth’s promised surprise ― what became known later as the Vegan Banquet. After shopping for ingredients in nearby South Lake Tahoe, Beth spent an afternoon supervising a group of campers who agreed to serve as her kitchen crew, helping prepare an exquisite vegan meal. None of us realized it then, but we had been drawn into Steve’s famous “reality distortion field,” an almost mystical way of motivating others to do things they never dreamed they could do. I can hardly make scrambled eggs, but there I was making vegan eggrolls. That night, while the sun set in the background, a half dozen couples dined sumptuously on vegan delicacies at a long linen-draped table on Baby Beach. We had a fabulous time, drank lots of fine wine and traded toasts to Beth’s cooking acumen and Steve’s unorthodox but effective way of getting us organized.

That was the last Vegan Banquet at Sierra Camp; indeed it was the only one we ever had. The Jobs family did not return the next year. Steve was a bit too busy. By the following August, NeXT had been acquired by Apple, and Steve had returned to the helm, just starting his second amazing run in that post. Many of us who were at Sierra Camp with the Jobs family in 1996 still go to Fallen Leaf during the same week every year, in early August. Camp remains “insanely great,” as Steve might have put it, but much about life has changed. The kids are no longer little. No hike is easy any more. Steve’s son, Reed, and my daughter, Hillary, are now sophomores at Stanford. And Steve is now gone.

In looking back, I still marvel at what happened that week. Out of the original Vegan Banquet in 1996, we started a tradition of holding a party on Baby Beach every Thursday night of camp. We jettisoned the idea of vegan food and now serve various kinds of barbecue. Everyone still pitches in with the preparation. In fact, the communal preparation part of the event has become the heart of it. In place of fine wine, we serve Mai Tai drinks, and the party is now open for everybody in camp, not just a few couples. What survives is a tradition of community, conviviality and plain old fun, and it all traces directly back to Steve’s visit.

The legend of how Steve had a way of putting his enduring style on everything he touched is now known worldwide, and I can report that one summer, while on vacation, I saw evidence of how he did it. The man portrayed as a “flawed genius” in Walter Isaacson’s biography, “Steve Jobs,” seems familiar. The quirks; the risk-taking worthy of Icarus; the relish taken in attacking others as a perverse motivational tool; the fun-loving spirit; the ingenious problem-solver and gadget-lover; the devotee of children’s cinema; the dedicated family man ― everything was on display, sharp edges and all. Sometimes I wonder whether a few more summers vacationing at Fallen Leaf Lake might have softened a few of those edges. With a guy who was that much of a Super Nova, probably not so much. But whatever we now choose to read into Steve’s legacy, of this there can be no doubt: He left us better off, which is the ultimate test of a life well-lived.