Stan Skokan (born Zdeněk Skokan), 1942
Stan Skokan was born in Prague in 1942. His father, Vladislav, worked as the chief technical officer for his grandfather’s HVAC business, while his mother, Zdeňka (who had studied electrical engineering), worked for a lighting company in Prague. In 1947, Stan’s father traveled to the United States for an official business trip. Although the 1948 Communist coup occurred while he was there, Stan says that he decided to return on behalf of his two sons. Stan’s grandfather’s business was nationalized and his father was sent to work in a labor camp at Jáchymov for 18 months. Stan’s mother, who had stopped working when her sons were born, returned to work designing appliances. When Stan’s father was released, he began working on a construction site and eventually made his way back up to designing heating systems.
Stan himself was not allowed entrance into university and began working as an electrician at the JAWA factory. After one year there, he began his mandatory two-year military service. He returned to work for JAWA and, as his skills as an engineer were noticed, he was offered the opportunity to study electrical engineering at a technical school. Stan took night classes and received his four-year degree. He then became the assistant to Dr. Tomáš Horňák, the technical director at the computer research institute [Výzkumný ústav matematických strojü – Research Institute of Mathematical Machines] in Prague.
In the fall of 1968 following the Warsaw Pact invasion, Stan and his then-girlfriend, Wendy, decided to leave the country. They received visas to visit family in Vienna for one week and crossed the border. Dr. Horňák, who had left the country earlier that year, helped them find a place to live and helped Stan secure job at Siemens. In February 1969, Stan and Wendy (who had since married) were sponsored by an aunt and moved to the United States. The pair settled in Mountain View, California (they later moved to Redwood City), and Stan got a job at HP where he worked for 25 years. Among other accomplishments, he received a patent and industry-wide recognition for digital computer circuitry.
Stan and Wendy received American citizenship and had two sons. Stan’s hobby of electric cars turned into a business and he ran an electric car dealership for many years. Stan often visits the Czech Republic and says that he ‘feels at home’ when in Prague; however, he has no plans to return there permanently. Now widowed, Stan lives in Redwood City, California.
Stan has an early memory of WWII
“I have a very interesting memory, which can be pinned down to an exact date, so I know how old I was when I remembered it. I remember sirens, and at that time we lived on Londýnská 81 and we were going from the second story down to the basement, and I remember sitting underground in the cellar with one of the persons being dressed up in military fatigues with a gas mask, and he was the organizer of the safety of the citizens. So that is one. Then I remember, after it was all clear, we walked out of the basement and I ran to the street, and at the beginning of the street there was a barricade which people pulled out the cobblestones to force the tanks to go up so they shoot at the bottom of the tanks and people could hide behind the barricades. So that was the time of the uprising of May 5 through May 9, 1945.”
Stan recalls the effect the 1948 Communist coup had on his family
“In 1947 my father traveled to the United States. He was invited by a Jewish family from New York, and I know very little detail about that trip; again, I was too young. But from what I know, it was some kind of business trip on behalf of the Czech government, because my father was traveling on a diplomatic passport. He visited major corporations, like General Electric where I remember he was telling us that he saw a drawing of a locomotive on a huge wall of the building, and he was impressed by the planning and design here. I don’t know how far west he went; I know that he brought some things from Yellowstone Park and he brought flags of several universities, so I think he was visiting some universities. And that’s about all I know.
“Now, my father was caught by the communist revolution, actually being here in the United States, and he was forced to make a decisions: to stay and hope to get the family here, or come back. Well, my father made a crucial decision that it will be actually better if he returned. So he made a decision on behalf of me and my brother to return and face the consequences. In 1949 all the family property was confiscated, my grandfather’s factory was nationalized and, in 1949, my father was arrested and served 18 months in a labor camp.”
Stan was called for mandatory military service as a truck driver one year later
“I was going to enter my military service at the time of the Berlin Crisis  so I was called in one month earlier, and they wanted us to become combat-ready very quickly, so I didn’t go through the normal boot camp that every military starts with. Instead they tried to get us driving as fast as we could. Now, I prepared for the military service a little bit by getting a truck driver’s license before getting to military service hoping that it will help me get a better assignment, and I did.
“But the surprise came about two weeks after the beginning of military service. The [officer] goes by my platoon and asks ‘How many of you have a high school diploma?’ Well, the mix there was that there were a few of us from Prague, and there were many sheepherders from the eastern part of Slovakia, so there were only two of us that raised our hand. So he picked us up and we were given train tickets to go back to Prague, and we were sent to a special course for movie operators, because every military base had their own movie theatre where they were showing the propaganda movies. So they needed two of us as movie operators and I was one of the two, and we were sent to Prague.
“Now, the course was at Prague Castle, and this is something unheard of. In military service, every soldier has to take care of all the chores himself. You have to make your bed, you have to clean your toilet, everything. Now in this special course we were housed together with the presidential guard. We got up in the morning, had breakfast, and had cleaning ladies making our beds and cleaning up after us. So we were sitting in the training courses during the day, we were eating in the cafeteria with the presidential guard, and I was serving my military service in Prague and going home for weekends. Unheard of during boot camp, but that was my luck.”
Stan received permission to study for a degree in electrical engineering from a technical institute
“During that time when I was finishing up my evening studies, one of the top scientists of the [computer] research institute had one personal assistant and was looking for a second one, and there again is a turn in my life. I was offered a job and I was picked to work with Dr. Tomáš Horňák, and he was the technical director of the institute and he worked independently, not directly on the design of the computer, but on the design of the instrumentation, so the engineers working on the computer can see the progress of their work and debugging and so on. So I worked with Tom for several years. We filed together for some patents, and we liked each other and worked together very well.
“In the meantime, the other top scientists of the computer research institute were slowly disappearing, escaping to the West. Every summertime vacation some of them didn’t come back from a trip to southern Europe and they were slowly making their way to the United States. That started with the founder of the computer research institute, Dusan Svoboda, who happened to be a classmate of both of my parents during their studies in university. So I didn’t know it at that time, but I found out later that that may have been the connection which got me the job at the computer research institute.”
Stan left Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1968. He and his wife Wendy settled in Vienna
“After one week of having a visa, we went to the Czech Embassy and they gladly extended our visa to one month. After one month, they gladly extended our visa to one year. And that was because the Czech government was hoping that some of the young people will come back and they wanted us to have the opportunity to come back legally. While I was in Vienna I received a letter from the director of the computer research institute [saying] that any time I decide to come back our jobs are guaranteed. Well, six months later, I became an illegal refugee because I left Vienna for the United States.”
Shortly after moving to the United States, Stan (helped again by Tom Horňák) found a job at HP
“I was quite happy in the job that I had at HP and, again, that’s one of my lucks of life. People in America talk about employment as a job. You are trained to do something, you do your job, and that’s it. I was one of the lucky people [in] that I was rarely given a job. Maybe at the beginning, maybe at the end of my career at HP, but most of the time at HP I was proposing my own ideas; I was implementing my own ideas; I was very respected; and, despite the fact that I had no degree and was surrounded by all PhDs, I did very well. I retired from HP after 25 years with a golden name tag which meant that I can come back anytime and do anything in the company that I want to. At that time, very few people had that privilege.
“During my career there I met most of the HP executives. I had dinners with both Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. I knew them personally. I shared equipment with them occasionally. Bill Hewlett sat on top of my bench during the HP-35 project, which was the first pocket scientific calculator, and I did the largest chips, made by HP at the time, for it. I had a very satisfactory career.”
Category: Bay Area, Oral History