The news of his death came, in a sweet little irony he would have appreciated, on my cell phone's voice mail.
It was a Saturday, my only day off in a 12-day run of work, so I let the phone ring when I saw the call was from the office. I checked for the message a few minutes later. It was one of the weekend news editors. He told me they'd heard Gordon Matthews had died in Dallas. They wanted to know if I knew how to get ahold of his family or anyone he'd worked with.
Two years ago, I wrote a profile of Gordon, who most of you probably don't know is the man who holds the patent for Voice Mail and many of its incarnations since he created the first voice messaging system in the late 70s.
I poked around the Web and searched my old e-mails (I rarely trash anything), looking for some links from the last time I'd spoken to him to the time when his life had ended. I found a few mentions of Austin companies he'd been associated with last year. I found a few old e-mails, one of them from a friend of his who'd read my article in 2000 and remembered Gordon from working with him back in the early days.
I sent in what I had and let the on-duty metro writer handle the obituary. It ran in Sunday's paper with some nice quotes from an old friend of Gordon's and some words from his wife. Peter Yang's portrait, the one that ran with the story I oriignally wrote, was the mugshot.
When it was clear I couldn't do anything else short of coming in and writing the story myself, I closed out my e-mail and went on with my day.
When you write about someone for a profile, you try to get inside their head, to walk in their shoes for just a little while, to get to know the throughline where there life might be explained.
I imagine being profiled like that is scary having someone sum up all your days and nights in what amounts to a few dozen paragraphs of copy.
I remember the interviews I had with Gordon. The way his life seemed like it was full of throughlines. How we kept missing each other and every time I got a voice mail message from him, I kept wondering if he was frustrated and annoyed with his own creation. Things kept clicking, little connections in his life and parallels to the way we use his technology kept revealing themselves. When I transcribed all my notes, I had so much more material and ideas than I could ever use in the story.
He was self-effacing. He smiled when he said that half the world loved him and the other half hated him. He was just as pissed as the rest of us that what he created as a way to help people personalize a greeting for callers instead of dealing with a receptionist had turned into a cavernous, maze-like world of automated menus and zero human contact.
He showed me what a patent looked like. He excitedly showed off his newest invention, a way of creating a voice mail multi-line network in the home. He told me how he'd always hated yelling up the stairs to let his daughter know she had a phone call or a message waiting.
On the day we took one of his photos, Peter had him stand outside, near his North Austin office, squinting against the sun. He told us about his war days as I scribbled my little messy notes in a notepad.
We left it at that and that was the last time I saw him. He shook my hand with one of his oversized, rough palms. He told me later, long after the piece ran, that he'd liked the article. Whether that's true or not, I'll never know, but it's always been one of my favorite two or three things I've written for a newspaper.
And now he's gone and what bothers me the most is that the thing that's gone from the world is what I tried to get across in the article. That this was a person who seemed to get it. Who could see a problem and move to fix it. He was somebody who changed the world, but kept plugging on, trying to get the little gadgets in our lives to work a little better for us and who, if you broke something, would surely come over and help you fix it, soldering that wire to this connect.
It was always reassuring to me, in this life where so much of my day is surrounded by technology, that there was one thing I could always point to and know where it came from. To know from whose mind it sprang. Voice mail, I'm sure, would have been invented by someone else if not for Gordon Matthews, but he got there first. He had the patent. And that, to me, meant I could trace this one thing that I and you and most everyone else uses every day, to this one talented mind.
It was comforting, knowing the flesh and bone behind the copper and plastic.
Check your voice mail today. Get annoyed by it. Delete a message by accident and curse it, or be pissy that you can't get a live person in tech support.
It's OK. Gordon knew it was an imperfect system.
But it was his.
And for better or for worse, now it's ours.
An online version of my Statesman profile of Gordon Matthews.
"Sir, I'm sorry this is coming up again, but as I've told you before, we can't accept job applications that have been covered in mayonnaise."