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The Desire to Achieve Runs Deep Among Members of Estrin Family : Three Ph.D.s, an MD and Founder of Computer Company

January 05, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Somewhere in a family photo album, they recall, there is a picture of them on a cruise ship, sailing along a magnificent, mountainous coast in northern Europe. And there on the deck, while the rest of the family takes in the panorama of rugged shore and ocean, one of the three children sits engrossed in a math book, its numbers, symbols and formulas crowding out the charms of dramatic scenery.

Although this tale may have been embellished for effect, it apparently says a thing or two about the Estrin family. In a decade obsessed with achievement, with making it, the Estrins have set their own rules and goals for what is valuable and worthwhile.

Married 44 Years

There are five of them: Gerald and Thelma Estrin, married 44 years, and daughters Judith, Deborah and Margo.

Gerald, 64, is chairman of the computer science department at UCLA and his resume includes heading up the team that built Israel's first computer and work with a pioneering computer team at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Thelma, 61, is director of the department of engineering and science at UCLA Extension and assistant dean for Continuing Education at UCLA's School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Judith, 31, is a founder and executive vice president of Bridge Communications, a Silicon Valley firm she helped start four years ago to produce computer network products. One day last week stock in her company was trading at $17 a share. She owns 300,000 shares with a total value of $5.1 million.

Deborah, 26, recently received her doctorate in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is now an assistant professor in computer science at USC.

Margo, 32, is the one who broke the pattern. She is a graduate of the USC School of Medicine and is now an internist in private practice in Northern California.

On a recent morning four of them (Margo was absent) gathered at the Estrin home in Westwood to talk about their lives and about what makes them the unusual family that they are.

Gamut of Reactions

The perceptions of others, they agreed, runs the gamut from curiosity to suspicions of unbridled workaholism and ambition.

"They say they want to know how we did it," said Gerald, acknowledging that others seem to think "we're strange." He added, "In some sense (our family) represents a lot of peoples' wishes for themselves and their children . . . they say we're lucky; we know we're lucky."

While the Estrins don't deny being subject to typical family tensions, they insisted that there was and is no additional load of stress because of their desire to achieve.

For instance, neither daughter remembered her childhood as one in which there was overt pressure from the parents.

Her parents' obvious dedication to the work ethic set an example, Judith said. "As opposed to active pushing, which a lot of people rebel against, there was always clearly the sense that there would be disappointment from our parents if we didn't do well and the desire to have approval from our parents," she said. "Today, all three of us, as grown up as we think we are, have that sense of wanting approval and not wanting to disappoint."

Deborah expanded on the theme: "And it's always been in terms of 'This is the way to have a fulfilled life' . . . it's always in those terms of 'We found fulfillment by working so hard and that's how you will find fulfillment also. It's not for us, it's for you.' "

Her comment was followed by laughter from the others responding to the tinge of satire in her voice.

And Thelma denied that she and her husband ran an elaborately structured household filled with the sounds of exhortation.

"We're not very pedantic in the sense we told them what to do," she commented. "Debbie says I like to have people read my mind rather than telling them what to do. So we're not very big on speeches and giving them directions, except maybe marching orders."

Deborah conceded that was generally true. "When I think about elementary school, junior high school, even high school, I remember very little pressure about grades and things like that," she said. "I find that very surprising . . . I can remember coming home with an A- and discussing why it wasn't an A, but it wasn't 'Why didn't you do this?' it was more, 'Let's discuss what happened here so we can do better.' "

Both daughters also remembered that their father was willing to spend hours helping with their homework but he would "never, ever" give them an answer to a problem.

Even though the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s did not leave them totally unaffected, the Estrins said that they came through that era of rebellion and the disintegration of families largely unscathed.

Aware of Consequences

Gerald remembered worrying about the threats of drugs and other dangers that he saw affecting other families. But he believes that his children were too aware of the consequences to risk their dreams for more dubious and quicker gratification.

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