T. Z. Chu: A man for his time

Tao-Zeun (T.Z.) Chu, one of the college’s most loyal and beloved alums, lived a life that could have been taken from the pages of an epic 20th-century novel—a story of love, war, exotic locales and international scientific achievement. But for T.Z. what remained the most important were family, good work, a place to call home, and generosity, especially to the two schools that shaped his life. We interviewed T.Z. at his home in Los Altos Hills in mid-August, about four weeks before he died at age 82.

T.Z. Chu’s life story starts before his birth, when a mysterious young woman arrived in Shanghai from Japan in the late 1920s. Although she lived under an assumed name, the local Japanese authorities in Shanghai had been notified by Tokyo of her presence, for she was a member of the family that ruled Japan as the Ashikaga shogunate from 1338 to 1573.

Tseneko Ashikaga, born in 1904, had fled the rigid life of an aristocratic woman in Japan. She began working in Shanghai as a tutor and translator. There a young businessman named Vico Chu began studying with her.

Vico, born in 1901, was from a family of silk merchants in Hangzhou, a city of gardens and canals south of Shanghai. The family business had exported millions of dollars worth of silk to France and other countries in the early 1900s.

Vico had been educated at the University of Lyon in France and had traveled throughout Europe. In the late 1920s he returned to China and settled in Shanghai to set up a textile weaving and dyeing business.

He could already understand several languages and could read and write in French, English and Chinese. Learning Japanese with his tutor Tseneko was next. The teacher and student fell in love, and they married in 1930. Tseneko eventually renounced her Japanese citizenship to live as a Chinese national.

In 1932 fighting broke out briefly in Shanghai between the Japanese and the Chinese forces under Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. An uneasy truce remained in place until outright war erupted in 1937. T.Z. Chu was born during the stable period of Japanese occupation before the war, in 1934. He was the middle child, with a sister, Li-Chun, born two years before, and another sister, Li-Chiang, born six years later.

Says T.Z., “My mother and father baked a cake when the war started and kept it in the freezer all those years until the war ended. By then it was a little dried out.” Although the end of WWII in 1945 brought another period of relative calm, it would not last long. With the Japanese no longer in control, civil war roared to life between the communists and the nationalists.

The company started by T.Z.’s father survived until the communist takeover in 1948, when the family fled Shanghai for Mumbai (Bombay), India. Says T.Z., “It was December 29, 1948. We left on the last Air France flight and spent one night in Hong Kong and New Year’s Eve in Saigon.”

Once in India, plans to start a new company disintegrated when Vico and his business partner were not able to secure the necessary permits during the turmoil that followed the post-colonial partition of India in 1947.

The Chu parents moved to Bangkok to start an export business after enrolling their three children in a unique boarding school in India. The Woodstock School was founded in 1854 as a Protestant girl’s school in a British colonial hill station. It became an American missionary school in 1872. Although T.Z. arrived at the school speaking no English, at his graduation he was honored as the “Best All-Around Student.”

The school is still located in Mussoorie, 150 miles NNE of New Delhi in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. At an altitude of 6,500 feet, the coolness attracted the families of foreign diplomats (and later many tourists). Says T.Z. about his time there, “In my 1952 graduation class of 31 students, we had nine different nationalities. I was never conscious of being a minority at the school and later in life. Our parents visited us in India periodically from Bangkok, and my mother spent several summers in Mussoorie to be with us.”

T.Z.’s father was a talented amateur photographer. He took these images of T.Z.’s mother.

By the time T.Z. graduated from the Woodstock School, his parents had moved to Tangier to establish a carbon dioxide plant to supply the growing beverage industry in North Africa. An ancient trading city located where the Strait of Gibraltar meets the Atlantic Ocean, Tangier was an international protectorate that later became part of Morocco.

Eighteen-year-old T.Z. stayed a month with his parents in Tangier, then a destination for eccentric artists, spies and obscure millionaires. He walked the same streets as expatriate American novelist and composer Paul Bowles, best known for his novel, The Sheltering Sky. Other American visitors included author William Burroughs and playwright Tennessee Williams.

In January 1953, T.Z. crossed the Atlantic in rough weather on a WWII-era freighter. He arrived in New York and traveled across the United States by train. He was met in Berkeley by his older sister, who had arrived two years earlier.

An East Coast college would have been much closer to Tangier than Berkeley but, explains T.Z., “At that time, it was not easy for relatively poor Chinese to be accepted by Ivy League schools. My parents were quite poor then, having to borrow money to build the carbon dioxide plant, and Berkeley was one of the top universities that welcomed foreign students of modest means.

“My older sister went straight to Berkeley from the Woodstock School in India. My younger sister left Woodstock School in fourth grade when my parents moved to Tangier. She graduated from a French school there and was also accepted by Berkeley.

“My sisters and I were able to attend Berkeley because tuition was low and because of the Berkeley Students Cooperative (BSC), which significantly reduced food and living costs. We are all supporters of BSC in gratitude.”

BSC was started in 1933 by 14 students, with the encouragement of Harry Kingman (1892–1982), a beloved figure who played one season with the New York Yankees, then helped lead the international office of the YMCA from his Berkeley office, coached various Cal baseball teams and, in retirement, became a self-funded civil rights lobbyist in Washington, DC.

During the Great Depression, BSC was one of many student cooperatives formed to help students afford housing and food. These cooperatives also took in students who were facing racial and religious discrimination.

Although he led a humble student life, T.Z. has fond memories of those years. “There was a corner drugstore owned by a very kind Japanese-American couple,” he recalls. “They took special interest in me because of my mother and occasionally offered me a muchappreciated free ice cream cone.

“There was, and still is, a pizzeria and beer garden near where I lived where a huge amount of beer was consumed on weekends. I was not aware until after I graduated that beer came in bottles smaller than a quart, because I had never seen one.”

T.Z. Chu with Eleanor Roosevelt at the 25th annual celebration of BSC.

T.Z. assumed more and more leadership roles in the co-op and was eventually elected president. He recalls one special honor, when he shared the podium in 1958 with Eleanor Roosevelt during the 25th anniversary celebration of the BSC. Says T.Z., “We drove a car to San Francisco to pick her up. She was very gracious, but once we began driving, she immediately fell asleep. It was the only way she could maintain her busy schedule.”

T.Z. had been accepted as a chemical engineering student, but he switched to physical chemistry when he learned that chemical engineering required a prerequisite of mechanical drawing, which he would have to take at Berkeley High.

“Berkeley was a lot of work for me, being a chemistry major in a highly competitive environment,” he recollects. “Many of my fellow students were older, serious veterans of the Korean War returning to school on the GI Bill. Fortunately, many grad students ate in the BSC dining halls and were often willing to help me.

“I attended three-hour lab classes most afternoons and worked evenings and weekends to pay my way through college. I graded papers for the math department and tutored psychology grad students in statistics.

“In the summers I worked a union cannery job in San Leandro, where we canned a variety of fruits. I was the only Asian in the plant. At first I was given one of the toughest jobs, scooping hot apricot jam into #10 cans by hand. After five days, when the plant managers realized I was a chemistry major, my job got much easier—measuring temps, recording data and using a pH meter. I also learned to understand and appreciate the sentiments of the blue-collar workers, mostly Portuguese immigrants, which served me well in business.”

T.Z.’s first job out of college set him on a path that he would follow for the rest of his career. He was hired by Keene Dimick, an agricultural chemist who worked at the USDA Western Regional Research Center, in Albany, CA. For several years the research center had been investigating the chemistry of flavor, and Dimick hired T.Z. to help develop a gas chromatography (GC) instrument that could be used for his work, and for many other purposes.

T.Z. worked in his boss’s garage in Walnut Creek. Dimick kept a low profile in his startup since by day he worked in a government lab. He named his company Wilkens Instruments and Research, Inc., after his brother-in-law in Napa County who assembled the devices in his garage there, with help from his fellow teachers at Napa High School.

The company was better known as Wilkens Aerograph, after the name of their product. Notes T.Z., “The company grew quickly and before I realized it, I was put in charge of marketing and sales and later assumed responsibilities over R&D and manufacturing as well.” A succession of increasingly sophisticated aerographs became the standard gas chromatography instruments in analytic chemistry labs for many years.

In 1956, Tangier’s status as an international protectorate ended and the city became part of Morocco. T.Z.’s parents sold their carbon dioxide plant to a French monopoly, Air Liquide, and moved to Versailles, France.

As business grew for Wilkens Aerograph the company began receiving several letters of interest from European chemical companies and government labs. T.Z. decided to travel to France, stay with his parents in Versailles and visit the companies that had inquired about the Wilkens instruments.

“When I showed the letters to my father,” says T.Z., “he let me know that they were from some of the most important companies in Europe. I had several successful visits, and when I returned home, I persuaded my boss to open a European branch of the company. He was not particularly convinced but eventually agreed on the condition that I would move there to open and run the European office.”

In 1963 T.Z. arrived in Basel, Switzerland. He had taken the advice from an Ernst and Young consultant who steered T.Z. away from the better-known cities of Geneva and Zurich by pointing out that Basel was the home of many Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical businesses.

Says T.Z., “I was one of only two Asians working in the city. As a representative of a new foreign firm, I lacked the clout to hire older professional salesmen. Instead, I hired technically trained young chemists about my own age. We were treated as helpful colleagues by our customers, which helped establish our credibility. I had made the right decision, although for the wrong reason. I count several lifelong friends among my staff from those years.”

The most important co-worker he met in Basel was his wife-to-be, Irmgard Suetterlin. The couple married in 1963. They have one daughter and two grandchildren. Although Irmgard has maintained her Swiss citizenship (T.Z. is a U.S. citizen), the couple agreed their daughter should be born in the United States. “Over the years,” he says, “our house has been a home-away-from-home for many Swiss visitors.”

Two years after T.Z. arrived in Basel, European sales of Wilkens Aerograph instruments outnumbered those in the United States, and the company became the world leader in sales of gas chromatographs. Large instrument firms began to take an interest, and the company was sold to Varian Associates, an early Silicon Valley firm that pioneered the development of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

Recalls T.Z., “My boss at Wilkens became the largest shareholder in Varian and retired a wealthy man, and a generous one—he gave me ten percent of the company. Varian kept me on to manage their new division and made me, at 33, the youngest vice president in the company.”

T.Z. with his spouse overlooking a view.

T.Z. added another continent to his business itinerary when he took on the responsibility for a new Varian acquisition in Australia. “I commuted between my house in Berkeley and Melbourne every month for about two years, until an interesting young company asked for my help and I resigned from Varian in 1969.”

Bob Finnigan was seven years older than T.Z. With a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, he had worked for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where he became fascinated with the potential of combining the analytical power of gas chromatography (GC) with mass spectroscopy (MS), through the use of emerging computer-based data systems (DS).

He founded Finnigan Instrument Company in 1967 to develop GC/MS/DS instruments. Although the company was a technical innovator, it struggled financially. T.Z. agreed to become an investor and serve as CEO in 1969.

“Finnigan quickly became a successful company,” says T.Z. “I like to say we owe our success to Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring. With growing concerns about DDT, PCBs and other environmental pollutants, demand for Finnigan instruments really took off. Pharmacology, and the testing for the presence of drugs, both legal and illegal, was another expanding market. I took the company public and became the first Asian CEO of a public technology company.”

T.Z. stayed with Finnigan for 23 years, until it was sold to Thermo Instrument Systems, now Thermo Fischer Scientific, in 1990. He stayed on with the new company as the subsidiary’s president for two more years.

About the final years of his career T.Z. says, “I was recruited to serve as a limited partner of a venture fund but returned to serve as CEO of several instrument companies that needed turn-around leadership. I retired for good in 2012 at age 78.”

It was in 1970, during his early years at Finnigan, that T.Z. and Irmgard moved to a comfortable house in Los Altos Hills. Over the years, his family gravitated to the Bay Area. Both his parents are buried here, and his sisters live nearby. “We can count about 40 members among our extended families who now live within an hour’s drive from our home,” he notes.

T.Z. and wife, Irmgard.

Despite his busy career, T.Z. has always found time for public service. In 1972 he was a founding board member of the Women’s Resource Center, the first non-profit organization with the mission of advancing women’s careers in technology companies. He was elected Chairman of the American Electronics Association in 1980 and served on the board of Friends of Woodstock School from 1996 to 2006.

T.Z. has always been a steadfast supporter of UC Berkeley and the College of Chemistry. He has served both as a UC Berkeley Foundation Trustee and a member of the CoC Advisory Board. T.Z. and Irmgard became Builders of Berkeley in 2003 and funded the T.Z. and Irmgard Chu Distinguished Professorship in Chemistry (currently held by Matt Francis) in 2005.

At 82, Chu can look back on a life well lived. His advice for young people?

“I would advise future generations to always keep the best interests of their succeeding generations in mind. By that I mean don’t focus on realizing immediate personal gain, but try to figure out how to leave behind a better social environment for succeeding generations. I sincerely believe providing the opportunities for good education is the key, and we all can do something about that.” T.Z.’s father Vico was a talented amateur photographer. He took these images of T.Z.’s mother (upper right) and his infant first child, T.Z.’s older sister (lower left) on a trip to Japan, probably in 1933.

Four weeks after we interviewed T.Z. for this story, he passed away peacefully at his home in Los Altos Hills on September 15, 2016, following a valiant three-year battle with esophageal and throat cancer.