Amherst Magazine

J. Thomas West '61

J. Thomas West '61 died May 19, 2011.
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JOSEPH THOMAS WEST III ’61

I remember the first time I saw Tom West. He arrived at the Phi Psi house one spring night driving a 1937 Ford Phaeton. People were waiting. The year before he had received that high honor: underachiever, a man with brilliance to waste. He had spent his year away in Cambridge, Mass., where he worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, played guitar and sang at Club 47. He seemed to trail a wake of precocious experience. Tom was already a legend, and in one way or another, he was a legend throughout his life.

 On graduation he returned to the Smithsonian, where he traveled with a suitcase-sized clock, synchronizing observatories around the world. He married, and he and his wife, Elizabeth “Muffet” Cohon, had two girls, Jessamyn and Kate. The marriage ended in divorce, as did a second marriage.

Even at Amherst, Tom was attuned to then nascent science of computers. He joined Data General shortly after the company’s founding. He spent the rest of his working life there, becoming senior vice president for technology. In the 1970s he oversaw the creation of a “mini-computer,” crucial step in the evolution of the machines from a roomful of circuitry to the laptop. This is the project recounted in The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder, which spread Tom’s fame beyond the technological world.

Tom was an unending object of fascination for everyone who knew him. He was oracular, contrarian, sometimes cryptic, not always the easiest person to be with, but unfailingly loyal to his friends. I think that to understand Tom you had to realize that he was a lifelong romantic. He had a keener sense than most people of how glorious life was supposed to be. He believed in perfection.

Tom retired to Westport, Mass., to pursue his boyhood passion for sailing. He died there, at home, apparently of a heart attack, on May 19, 2011.

—Richard Todd ’62

 

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