Rocky Clark, 35, and at last about to receive his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences from UC Berkeley, wants it clearly understood that he was not a dropout.
"I never dropped out of college," he insisted. "I simply took a year off to earn money for my fourth year of school. And then my career kept going up."
Indeed. Rocky Clark is Apple computer creator Steve Wozniak. He used an alias at UC Berkeley because, he said, "I knew I wouldn't have time enough to be an A+ student." Rocky was the first name of his dog Rocky Raccoon, and Clark his wife Candi's last name. The university administration was aware of his identity and alias--he is not the first student to use this means of attending Berkeley incognito. While his real name appears in the university records, he has opted for Rocky Clark on his diploma.
Wozniak finally finished up the few units he needed in order to graduate this semester. His extended college career had begun at the University of Colorado in 1968. Money, or the lack of it, brought him back to Northern California for his sophomore year, spent at DeAnza Community College in Cupertino. He took a year off to earn enough for another year of college, this time at UC Berkeley, then dropped out--or rather, stepped away--again in order to finance a final year.
"I worked for a year that turned into 10 years," he said.
By the time he returned to Berkeley, in 1981, the computer he had designed and helped build in a garage had evolved into Apple Computer Inc., the firm that launched the desk-top computer industry and made Wozniak an estimated $100 million. He had decided to stop working for awhile after a plane crash followed by a spell of amnesia, and said, "I had a free year and realized this was my last chance" to get that long-coveted diploma.
But why was that piece of paper so important to him? After all, no prospective employer was about to ask the nation's No. 1 computer nerd his qualifications, and anyway, he'd already made his millions.
Value of a College Education
"I had worked so hard to complete three years--it was just all that work," Wozniak explained. "And official acknowledgment has a value." Later on, when he wants to talk to his children--he has two, ages 3 and 1--about the value of a college education, "this piece of paper will confirm it for my kids."
Besides, he expected it would be fun, and it was. "It was good to be able to sit back and not be a strict engineering nerd," he said. "It was great to be that relaxed again, to walk the campus with a Walkman--always a Walkman--and carrying around the backpack." He still totes a backpack, even though he acknowledged that "I have found that it does not protect my computer manuals as well as a briefcase."
During the week, he and his wife lived near the campus, commuting to Los Gatos on weekends. "When I was in Berkeley before (in 1971-72), you could find an apartment anywhere," he said. "This time, housing was zero. We got an apartment because my wife had a connection."
He did well if not brilliantly academically, and explains "I didn't have as much time as most students." While attending school he was also organizing the first of his two gigantic US music festivals in San Bernardino County that eventually ran several million dollars in the red. Homework was done between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. "I spent a lot of all-nighters," he recalled.
Still, he said, "I liked to keep working on a test problem or a homework assignment days after I handed it in, if it was interesting."
Curriculum Had Changed
He found that in the 10 years he had been out of school the curriculum had changed. "In 1972, it was such a new curriculum that it was not rigid," he said. "Nowadays, (students) are taught categories of problems and their solutions. You have to get the 'right solution.' And there are all those inside buzz words. (That) you are judged to be top-notch means you have learned the insiders' words."
Wozniak has never been willing to go that route. "I don't believe so much in the formality, the rules," he said. "It is more important to learn than to get grades. If you are smart, you let yourself go and your head will know that these books are the ones you want. I was very much like that; I was always reading computer manuals. But I was learning.
"I was not thinking in terms of external rewards. If you think in a purer sense, if you learn a lot, you will be successful in life. And there is an internal reward."
It was an attitude that did not endear him to his instructors. He says they didn't like the idea of a student using a computer to do his homework, and it still rankles that he got marked down once because he misspelled paradigm. "I had to get Spellstar," he said with a grin, referring to a computer spelling-check program.
In a few of his engineering classes he apparently spoke out "in a tone of voice that sounded too self-confident, not a student's voice. TA's (teaching assistants) don't like that."
Only occasionally was his anonymity pierced. "At the end of the year, a few kids came up to me and said, 'By the way, about your alter ego . . . ' " he said.
Wozniak, in cap and gown, will be the commencement speaker for UC Berkeley's College of Engineering on Saturday, and says he will "try to say why engineering is important to the world, what it does for people in economic terms.
"It makes everything cost less," he said, defining technology as "any steps taken that increase how much we have for what we put into it."
After he quit Apple last year, Wozniak started up a new company, CL9 (for Cloud 9) which is developing a simple remote-control device capable of operating several different home entertainment systems. He is also working on a project with Axlon, which manufactures talking teddy bears and the like, about which he is steadfastly mysterious. It is code-named NEMO, for Never Ever Mentioned Outside, and Wozniak will only say that "it is a toy--not the stuffed animals," and involves video center equipment.
He describes himself as "partly retired," explaining that in addition to his various business activities he is spending more time these days with his family, and has involved himself in community affairs. He is working with a group that is trying to bring professional ballet to San Jose and helping with several museum projects, including a Children's Discovery Museum. It is, he said, "a peaceful, happy life," adding "you can be retired and still work very hard."
He is also collaborating on a computer joke book and, indeed, is extremely fond of jokes. For three years in the early '70s he ran the Bay Area's first Dial-A-Joke phone service, fielding 2,000 calls a day. He said that he and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' "first business collaboration" was building and selling blue boxes--the electronic devices that make it possible to make toll calls free.
"It was a technical game," he maintained. "I called only to explore the phone company as a system, to learn the codes and tricks. I'd talk to the London operator, and convince her I was a New York operator. When I called my parents and my friends, I paid. After six months I quit--I'd done everything that I could.
"I was so pure. Now I realize others were not as pure, they were just trying to make money. But then I thought we were all pure."
The education of Steve Wozniak, a.k.a. Rocky Clark, will not end this week.
"Since the sixth grade, I have wanted to be one, an engineer, and two, an elementary school teacher," he said. "There are so many things going on in my life that I'm not going to be able to do that, not immediately. But now I can enroll to get the credential."