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Paying a Plane Tribute to an 'Internaut'


So this is how the Internet community marks the death of one of its founding members: with chamber music, heartfelt tributes and a squadron of paper airplanes.

About 250 mourners gathered in USC's Bovard Auditorium last week to say farewell to Jonathan B. Postel, the first of the original "Internauts" to pass away. Postel, the longtime head of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority in Marina del Rey and a computer network pioneer, died Oct. 16 of complications after heart surgery at the age of 55.

The memorial service may have been the largest gathering of computer scientists dressed in suits--stark contrast to Postel's preferred attire of ponytail, bushy beard and sandals. Postel's sister, Margie Bradshaw, tried to remedy the situation.

"In honor of Jon, I'm just going to remove my shoes," she said. "I'm sure he would do the same."

After a rendition of Pachelbel's melancholy "Canon in D," the program began with solemn eulogies from USC President Stephen B. Sample and Herbert Schorr, executive director of USC's Information Sciences Institute, where Postel worked for 21 years.

"Jon was a truly humble person," Schorr said. "He'd be uncomfortable, probably, about the attention he's been getting."

Attention indeed. The Clinton administration dispatched its senior policy advisor for Internet issues, Ira Magaziner, to the service. Magaziner began by reading a letter from the president, who praised Postel for his "vision, intelligence and rigorous insistence on simplicity and elegance of design. . . . Because of his efforts, people across America and around the world have virtually unlimited access to a universe of knowledge."

Magaziner recounted a meeting with Postel at the White House. Because of the computer scientist's '60s-style appearance, it took 20 minutes of wrangling to persuade the Secret Service to let him through. Once inside, he drew stares from the more buttoned-down patrons, Magaziner said.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'These people care so much about their place in history, but there's no one else in this dining room that history is going to remember except Jon Postel,' " he said.

Then Magaziner--an on-again-off-again adversary of Postel's in his efforts to turn the Internet into an international self-governing network--delivered the tribute that elicited the most belly laughs.

"If you believe there is a heaven, as I do, it strikes me that since the Internet has already gone everywhere else, it should be there too," Magaziner said. "Jon can get to work on the Internet addressing system up there so when his friends join him, they'll know where to find him."

Postel's colleague at the USC institute, Joe Bannister, read tributes from friends who couldn't make it to Los Angeles for the service. Among them was Vint Cerf, a fellow Internet luminary who worked on the Arpanet--the precursor to the Internet--with Postel when both were graduate students at UCLA.

Cerf, who is known to write poems recounting the history of the Internet, sent a new work, "Requiem for Jon Postel, Internaut":

And so at last we knew his course had run

Our faithful steward, Jonathan, was done.

He was among the first and we were blessed,

But now we lay him down to ever rest.

Now pause with me a moment, shed some tears

For auld lang syne, for love, for years and years

Of faithful service, duty done, I weep.

Lay down thy packet, now, my friend, and sleep.

The final speakers were Postel's siblings. Bradshaw thanked the Internet community for the scores of condolences posted on various Web sites. "Let's honor his memory by protecting and guiding and improving the Internet."

Rus Postel remembered his brother as a man who was "slow to anger and quick to forgive."

Then Thomas Postel closed the service by distributing paper airplanes--constructed from authentic pages from the Request for Comments series of technical notes about Internet protocols that Jon Postel edited for a quarter century--to the dozen friends and relatives on the dais.

As they flung their planes toward an applauding audience, he called out: "In the memory of Jon Postel!"


Times staff writer Karen Kaplan can be reached via e-mail at

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