USC Honors Cell Phone Pioneer

As millions of people across the globe yak away on their cell phones, they can thank an Italian Jewish immigrant who laid the foundation for the ubiquitous device.

Equally grateful is USC, which earlier this month unveiled its newly named Andrew and Erna Viterbi School of Engineering in recognition of a $52 million gift from the one-time immigrant and his wife.

With banners, balloons, bands, laudatory speeches and even a canon-shot salvo, USC feted Viterbi, who in a later interview traced his career as a wireless communications pioneer, academician and entrepreneur and weighed the responsibilities of a Jewish philanthropist.

Viterbi, generally addressed as Andy, was born in Bergamo, a northern Italian town of 110,000 with 70 resident Jews. He was the son of an a prominent ophthalmologist. The year was 1935, not a good time for the old, well-established Jewish community of Italy as fascist dictator Benito Mussolini began to ape Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws.

"By 1938, my father had lost his hospital position, couldn’t practice his profession; Jewish kids couldn’t attend public schools, and we were shunned," Viterbi said.

Fortunately, the father obtained a visa to enter the United States and the 4 year old and his parents landed in New York on Aug. 27, 1939 — five days before the outbreak of World War II. The family soon moved to Boston, where young Andy could look across the Charles River and glimpse the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he decided then and there on his future college and career.

For his bar mitzvah, Andy and his parents traveled back to Italy, where one of the celebrants was the great writer Primo Levi, a distant relative.

After finishing MIT, Viterbi began the West Coast phase of his life by joining the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He met and married Erna, who had arrived with her family as refugees from Sarajevo. They joined Temple Sinai in Glendale and soon added three children to the household.

Viterbi received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from USC in 1962, in 1963 joined the UCLA faculty and three years later developed his path-breaking Viterbi algorithm.

It happened while the family was celebrating Purim, recalled Erna Viterbi, and the children were anxious to show off their homemade, prize-winning costumes. Despite the efforts of the children and their mother, the father couldn’t be distracted from scribbling on a piece of paper.

Finally, Erna Viterbi asked her husband if he had come up with anything, and he replied, "Well, I thought about it, but it’s nothing major."

Actually, it was the Viterbi algorithm, now imprinted on USC T-shirts, which opened the doors to the digital age as a groundbreaking mathematical formula for eliminating signal interference. This allows cell phones to communicate without interfering with each other, but this and later contributions by Viterbi go much further.

C. L. Max Nikias, USC engineering dean, summed up Viterbi’s impact, saying, "Try to imagine a world without Andy’s inventions, and you’d have to travel back in time 30 years — before cell phones, direct broadcast satellite TV, deep-space weather forecasting and video transmission from the surface of Mars."

As an entrepreneur, Viterbi co-founded Linkabit in the 1960s, and cell phone giant Qualcomm in San Diego in 1985. The companies have been huge success stories, and in the year 2000, Viterbi ranked 386th on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, with an estimated worth of $640 million.

Currently, he and his daughter, Audrey, head the Viterbi Group, a small investing and advisory firm for start-up companies. Today, at age 68, he has also stepped up his long involvement in Jewish and general civic and philanthropic causes.

A former president of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, Viterbi is proud as well to have served as president of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla and even prouder that his son, Alan, holds the same post today and keeps a kosher home.

Unlike most very wealthy American Jews, who, according to a recent study, channel only a minute fraction of their charitable giving to specifically Jewish causes, Viterbi has played a major role in aiding Jewish institutions in the San Diego area and in Israel.

Until his megagift to USC, he estimated, he assigned 60 percent of his total giving to Jewish causes and 40 percent to general ones.

The former include the San Diego Jewish Academy, attended by his five grandchildren, the Jewish Community Building, named in honor of his wife’s parents, as well as the Technion in Haifa and various start-up companies in Israel.

But he makes no apologies for his generosity to USC and other non-Jewish beneficiaries, including MIT and UCLA.

"One naturally forms attachments to universities and institutions one grew up with," he said. "We are Jews, but we also live in a larger world and society."