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Can You Hear Me Now: Immigrant Paved the Way for Digital Revolution

March 29, 2004
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As millions of people across the globe chat away on their cell phones, they can thank an Italian Jewish immigrant.

Equally grateful is the University of Southern California, which earlier this month unveiled its newly named Andrew and Erna Viterbi School of Engineering, in recognition of a $52 million gift.

With banners, balloons, bands, laudatory speeches and even a canon shot salvo, USC feted Andrew 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, 68, was born in Bergamo, a northern Italian town of 100,000 with 70 resident Jews, the son of a prominent ophthalmologist. The year was 1935. It was soon a frightening time for the 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,” recalled Viterbi.

Fortunately, his father obtained a visa to enter the United States and the 4-year-old with 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 Finci, who had arrived with her family as refugees from Sarajevo, and they soon added three children to the household.

Viterbi received his doctorate 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 kids 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.

The dean of the USC engineering school, C.L. Max Nikias, 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. 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 mega-gift 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 — Israel Institute of Technology 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.”

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