Mathematics And Computer Science

Our Lives, Our Laureates: Leonard Kleinrock

"Here I was on a very strong academic career, going through school with great success, ready to enter this wonderful thing called ‘college', and suddenly I found myself thrown into an abyss."

One of the most important events in my life was my first success. I was a Boy Scout.  I became what’s called aa Star Scout, moving up the ranks.  And at that point, my scoutmaster said to me, ‘Len, you can become the first eagle scout in this troop.’

And at that time, it was a very serious challenge.  Becoming an eagle scout was a real – a real thing.  And I was living in the middle of Manhattan.  I mean you don’t find animals, or woods, or trees.  You find pigeons, sparrows, an occasional squirrel and a lotta rain.

So, I set out to achieve that goal, and I did become the first eagle scout in that troop.  And having been able to achieve something which was essentially almost on the edge of bein’ out of reach – setting the goal, planning, executing and achieving – was a very important milestone for my sense of ability, capability and sort of a path to recognizing, yes, you can achieve what you want if you really go after it.

So, with that success behind me, I moved to school very, very effectively.  I was lucky enough to go to the Bronx High School of Science, graduated there, became a lifeguard in the summer between high school and college, and I was all set to go to CCNY in the daytime for electrical engineering.

During that summer, my father took me down to visit a company that his cousin was running.  It was an electronic company – photoelectric devices – and this gentleman offered me a job, and my father then urged me, coerced me, and almost insisted that I take that job.  And instead of goin’ to day session, I would thereby go to evening session.

Now, you have to understand.  Here I was on a very strong academic career, going through school with great success, ready to enter this wonderful thing called ‘college,’ and suddenly I found myself thrown into an abyss.  Almost nobody graduated from evening session in those days, you know? 

We were a hodgepodge, a collection of people like you can’t imagine.

The reason my father did that is we needed the money; we were very poor.  And even if I could have free tuition – and by the way, the tuition at City College was $12 a semester - and I couldn’t afford that.  Couldn’t afford it, because I had to bring money into the house.

So, there I was with this collection of misfits, if you will - some brilliant people, some real losers – attending school at night.  And it seemed like a tunnel – a dark tunnel – through which I might never get.

So, I said, ‘I’ve gotta get through this,’ and I did race through this.  I got through in five and a half years.  Through a daytime program, which would’ve taken five.  It took me five and-a-half at night.  I went almost full bore every summer, worked a full schedule at the job and managed to come outta that. 

So, that was a case where it wasn’t a failure; it was a success, but there was a monkey wrench thrown into the – the – the pathway in front of me. And it would’ve been very easy to have faltered, as had so many of my classmates, just dropping out of college because it was too hard.  They weren’t motivated.  But I found it inspiring, and I chose to find it inspiring, because I recognized, ‘I’ve gotta get through this, ‘cause I wanna be an engineer, and I want to be successful.’