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Book tells the story of Montclair’s Clay, Silicon Valley pioneer

A Montclair man is the subject of a new book that seems destined for the big screen. “Unstoppable: The Unlikely Story of a Silicon Valley Godfather” is the story of Roy Clay Sr., whose expertise in computer programming helped make Hewlett-Packard a household name.

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Clay started writing code in the 1950s — rare for anyone in those early days of computer programming and unheard of for an African American. He was born in 1929 in Kinloch, Missouri, a once vibrant all-black town. His thirst for learning was supported by his teachers and loving parents; but in nearby Ferguson, where he mowed lawns to earn money, racism often reared its ugly head. In fact, Clay was once handcuffed by police and driven to the edge of town, for doing nothing more than drinking a soda outside a grocery store.

“Don’t ever let me catch you again in Ferguson,” said the officer, calling Clay a racial slur. That incident was a seminal moment for Clay. His mom told him he should never let racism be an excuse for not succeeding in life. Clay’s real role model, though, was his sister.

“She was older, and she’d graduated from college, and I looked up to her,” he said. So Clay enrolled in Saint Louis University in 1946 and graduated in 1951 with a degree in mathematics — the first African American to graduate from the school. He got married and went to work as a programmer at McDonnell Aircraft Corp. before being hired at what’s now known as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

By 1962 he was working for Control Data Corp. on a computer language called Fortran that worked well with numeric and scientific computing. That’s when he caught the attention of David Packard.

“He found me,” Clay said. “He came to my house and said, ‘How much do you owe on your home?’ He gave me the money to buy my house, and I came to work for him.”

What Clay went on to do at Hewlett-Packard made him a legend. He led a team of engineers in the creation of the 2116A minicomputer, the first to be sold by HP and only the second 16-bit computer on the world market. Imagine taking a machine as big as a room and shrinking it down to the size of a typewriter, and with a more reliable operating system. Yet Clay’s trailblazing days were just beginning. In 1973, a female friend convinced him to run for the Palo Alto City Council.

“I didn’t think I had a chance,” he said. “There’d never been a Black man on the council, and I didn’t think I’d get the votes.”

Clay went on to win a seat and keep it for six years — eventually serving as Palo Alto’s first African American vice mayor in 1976 and 1977.

Some of Clay’s best stories come from his early years as the first Black member of San Francisco’s Olympic Club. “I didn’t want to join,” he remembers. “I told my wife it cost too much money and I didn’t think I’d fit in. She said ‘No, I want you to join. It’s an honor to be asked.’ ”

Those early days as a member of the city’s athletic and social club in the late 1980s could be challenging.

“I had a pistol in my golf bag,” Clay admitted. “I thought I was going to be attacked; but the ones who liked me protected me.”

Clay went on to serve as the first African American on the Olympic Club’s board of directors. To read more about Roy Clay Sr.’s inspiring journey, see the website unstoppableroyclay.com.

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