Schenectady County

Region gets to see both sides of ‘The Woz’ (with photo galleries)

If anyone’s reputation precedes them, it’s Steve Wozniak.

If anyone’s reputation precedes them, it’s Steve Wozniak.

The compact man dons a retro wristwatch, is fond of bright blue Nikes, and, like half the world, keeps his iPhone at the ready. The man who some call The Woz is known for a lot of things. Most notably, he’s known for co-founding Apple Computer with the late Steve Jobs.

But if he had his way, Wozniak would first be known as a philanthropist, financier of education programs and rescuer of horses.

“I’m known for doing an awful lot of good in the world,” he said without affect Thursday to a crowd of bright-eyed high schoolers. “That’s one of my reputations, as well as starting Apple. And I’d prefer being the nice guy to people, and being thought of that way, much more than starting Apple.”

It was these two Wozniaks — the inventor who helped change the world of technology and the softhearted philanthropist — whose insights the local community soaked up Thursday on a whirlwind trip through the Capital Region.

The first Wozniak imparted advice to a cross-section of leaders from the Capital Region’s Tech Valley, from engineers, foundation leaders and school and health care officials to a high school senior trying to grow a business he just started.

Starting his day with a tour of Tech Valley High School, Wozniak shared tidbits of his own school days with students at the innovative science, math and technology-oriented East Greenbush school. And they shared theirs, too.

Jesse Hunziker tapped a sequence of keys on a computer inside the EYP Fab Lab, a workshop with black tabletops and sawdust flakes scattered on the floor. The CNC machine nearby began to move, sliding a piece of wood back and forth in preparation for cutting designs.

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“I love this machine,” he said, leaning back against the computerized machine as it stopped moving. “Other students here, when they have questions about how to use it, they all come to me because they know I’m always in here.”

The Tech Valley High senior showed off the beloved machine, explaining its versatility to Wozniak and a room of school and local officials.

“The things I’m seeing and hearing look like this place makes learning fun,” Wozniak said.

He strode the hallways of Tech Valley High, which is on the University at Albany’s East Campus, where students have the chance to orient Wozniak to their own innovative and creative projects.

It’s the first day of school here, and Wozniak is nostalgic for his own high school experience, when his electronics teacher sent bright students to local businesses for hands-on experience and he tried his hand one day at programming a computer. Classrooms didn’t have computers back then, he said, only “big, rich companies.”

“It seems like there’s really so much doing here, rather than just looking at a book,” he said.

Schools like Tech Valley High need a lot of resources, he said later to an auditorium of students. It needs parts to build things, equipment it can put into students’ hands that says to them “here, go build something.”

“I started designing computers in high school,” he said. “I sat down, and on paper, I started figuring out, OK, how do you design a computer? Did I open up a book on how to design computers? No, there was no such thing that existed for a high school student to find. I just started practicing on paper, trying to teach myself, and in the end, when I looked back, I was writing the book on how to do it.”

Imparting insights and advice at rapid-fire pace, Wozniak urged students to be open to discovering what they love by accident, to come up with ideas and then make them into a tangible object to put into someone’s hands. Build the same thing over and over again until it’s so perfect and beautiful, he said, that you would be happy to be judged as a person by that object.

The burning questions on students’ minds varied from wondering where Wozniak sees technology heading in the next decade to wondering why the Apple logo has a bite out of it.

“An ad agency came up with a bunch of different designs, and Steve Jobs and I liked it,” he chuckled. “No other reason.”

Rokeya Sultana got to meet The Woz on the first day of her senior year, and was “psyched” — along with the rest of her classmates — to partake in casual conversation with the man who single-handedly designed the first computer able to display color — the Apple II.

Tech Valley High partners with dozens of businesses to provide students hands-on experience, an experience she was privileged to share with Wozniak.

“It’s just really cool because I honestly thought that he went to a traditional high school,” she said. “But then, just to hear that he had a different opportunity and see how much he’s done with it is amazing. Sometimes you’re handed so much, but some people just don’t take that very far. He’s taken it to another level.”

John Cavalier, a founding father of Tech Valley High School, used to work with Wozniak at Apple and describes his former coworker succinctly: “Give him a problem in the morning, and he’ll have a solution for you by noon.”

It’s a work philosophy that ties over to Wozniak’s philanthropy, the one that brought him to the Capital Region in the first place.

He ended his visit Thursday at Proctors in Schenectady, where he hosted a concert with Canadian singer-songwriter Ariana Gilis to benefit Peaceful Acre Farms, a nonprofit organization that rescues abused and neglected horses.

“I was nervous,” said Peaceful Acres Executive Director Nanci Beyeri, “but when Steve Wozniak comes into town and his position is supporting Tech Valley and the mission of Peaceful Acres, obviously it’s got to do something to make a stir in the community.”

Key Hall at Proctors was buzzing Thursday evening with hundreds of community supporters who showed up to support the cause, listen to music, meet Wozniak, and enjoy some wine and hors d’oeuvres.

Though she spent most of the day preparing for the big event, Beyeri made sure to catch Wozniak’s appearance at Tech Valley High School and left grateful for the lessons in philanthropy he passed on to students.

“I care very much about engineering and quality of products and all the neat gadgets out there,” Wozniak said earlier in the day, “but I care so much about people that are not being treated well, people that are unhappy and don’t have enough in life. And that applies to animals, as well.”

When he learned an aging workhorse was on its way to the slaughterhouse, he donated money to bail the horse out and send it to Peaceful Acres.

The 20-year-old horse, now called “Woz,” is receiving care after years of emaciation, abuse and scars.

“An animal’s brain is like a person’s,” said Wozniak. “This animal’s been treated so poorly it can’t even socialize normally. To have a friend in this world is sometimes the most important thing. To find somebody that needs a little help, a child who needs a shoelace tied, and tie the shoelace for them, that, to me, is more important than starting a computer company.”

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