Each year, Embedded Computing Design dedicates an issue to innovators in the electronics design community. These individuals have had a significant, positive impact on technology, the industry, and their peers throughout the course of their careers. This is my nomination of Wayne Kristoff.
In February of next year I will have been working at OpenSystems Media (OSM) for eight years, and more than 25 percent of my life. It’s weird to think of life in those terms, especially when the average length of employment at a single company is 4.6 years. But it’s true.
When I started at OSM back in 2011 the company was headquartered in the town of Fountain Hills, AZ, just outside of Phoenix. It was located in this sleepy suburb because two of the owners and co-founders lived there: Wayne and Rosemary Kristoff.
By the time I arrived, Wayne was already semi-retired. He still kept most of the core business IT systems up and running, many of which he developed decades ago when OSM made its digital transition. Being the resident system administrator, Wayne would often drop into the office to provide tech support, monitors (somehow he always had an extra, better monitor than yours), miscellaneous foodstuffs, and catch up in general. He rode his Ducati through town so you could always hear him coming.
Knowing me to be an avid Arizona State football fan, Wayne never missed a chance to remind me that legendary coach Frank Kush was from his native Pennsylvania. By some absurd measure he also kept up to date with high school football prospects in his home state, frequently asking if I’d heard of them. This type of chatter was common, not just with me but with everyone in the office, and always tailored to the interests of the other speaker(s). I don’t know how he found the time for so many interests, but I think it was because Wayne was generally interested in people.
To Wayne, the people at OSM were more important than the profit – an innovative thought from a small company making it in a climate of mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, and unemployment. Keep in mind that in 2011 the U.S. economy was still recovering from the Great Recession, which hit the publishing sector particularly hard. OSM, on the other hand, was hiring.
Outside of work Wayne proved that his office demeanor was in no way put on. He had piercing blue eyes that grinned during a conversation as if he knew something you didn’t. These accompanied an almost permanently cracked smile that, when hearing one of his many incredible life stories, made me think I was listening to a tall tale. The stories usually involved a younger Wayne, an exotic region of the world, and some act of mischief that pushed the boundaries. I still don’t know how many of them were true.
One day in the spring of 2017 we found out that Wayne had a brain tumor. The tumor impacted his motor skills, though these improved somewhat with physical therapy. It also affected the Broca’s Aphasia, the part of the brain responsible for speech production and articulation.
A couple of weeks after hearing the news I visited Wayne and Rosemary at their home. Wayne was in good spirits. He was up, moving around, and intently involved in the conversation. The only inconsistency with any other Wayne encounter was that he limited his responses to “yes” or “yeah.” I was optimistic. He was on the mend. The office even pitched in on a chemotherapy care package labeled “You Got This.”
Sometime over the next few weeks, Wayne suffered a setback.
I was getting married in early May, in a town called Sedona more than 100 miles north of Phoenix. While Wayne and Rosemary had of course been invited, we assumed they wouldn’t attend given the circumstances. But May 6th came, and there they were.
After the ceremony ended and the mingling had commenced, my wife and I made our way through the crowd to say hello to the Kristoffs and thank them for coming. Wayne said just one word, quietly, to my wife: “beautiful.” I don’t know how long he practiced saying that, or how difficult it was for him. I’ll never forget that. Ever.
Wayne passed away last fall. He was 71.
Shortly after his passing, I visited Rosemary and their daughter, Corrie, at their home. As the night was ending, Rosemary gave me a box from Wayne saying he wanted me to have it. It was his Skagen watch. I had to leave.
I keep Wayne’s watch at my desk at work. Every time I feel the stress getting tight in my chest, I rub the metallic mesh band, look at the time, and think back to one of my first exchanges with Wayne.
A long time ago, around when I got hired, Wayne instant messaged me a login credential for some system. Being brand new, I thanked him for the password as well as the opportunity with his company. He asked how things were going and I said, “Good. Sort of feels like home.”
He said, “Sure does.” I immediately thought to myself what a stupid thing to say to an owner of the company. Of course it feels like home to him. It’s his company. But looking back almost eight years later, maybe Wayne once again knew something I didn’t.
I hope that in 40 years I’m lucky enough to be a guy like Wayne. Frankly, I think we all should.
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