Life of Montclair’s Clay, a tech pioneer, includes several Black ‘firsts’
By Lou Fancher
In the Oakland hills’ Montclair district, your next-door neighbor could be a father, golfer, memoirist or an elderly gentleman who grew up until he was age 14 in a home without electricity or running water.
The guy on the other side of the backyard fence could also be a mathematician and entrepreneur who, despite all odds, rose to unprecedented levels in a career involving programming and microcomputing in Silicon Valley. As a Black man in America, this neighbor’s resume includes many remarkable “firsts.”
In the rare, singular instance of Roy L. Clay Sr., 93, this exceptional Montclair resident qualifies as “all of the above.” Born in 1929 in Kinloch, Missouri, Clay was the fourth of Charles and Emma Jean Clay’s nine children and learned early on the importance of family.
After attending Missouri’s then-segregated public schools, Clay entered Saint Louis University as one of just a handful of Black students and graduated in 1951 with a math degree. Eventually meeting Virginia Conners, who became his wife of 38 years, the couple drove west in 1962 to arrive and make their home in Palo Alto.
As their family grew to include three sons, Roy Jr., Rodney and Chris, Clay’s career took him from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to Control Data Corp. to Hewlett-Packard to founding his own company, Rod-L Electronics. He was later elected as the first Black man on the Palo Alto City Council and served as the city’s vice mayor in 1976.
Separately from his work, Clay devoted time to Black youth organizations and was the first Black man admitted as a member — and eventually elected to the board — of the San Francisco Olympic Club. NBA star Steph Curry featured Clay’s memoir, “Unstoppable,” this past December as the top pick in “Underrated: Stephen Curry’s Book Club” with online platform Literati (literati.com/book-clubs/stephen-curry).
“He just a few months ago moved to a skilled nursing facility,” said his son, Chris Clay, providing an update on his father. “Otherwise, he’d be on the phone speaking to you directly. We worked on that memoir for two years, and he was on board, on Zoom during the pandemic days, the whole time.”
Chris Clay, 57, graduated in 1987 with a degree in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley and holds an MBA from UCLA. Now in business development for German-based SAP, one of the world’s largest software companies, Chris said his favorite story told by his father and included in the memoir involves an application for a job at McDonnell Aircraft Corp.
“He graduated from college with a degree, sent out a resume and got an interview for what he thought would be his dream job,” Chris Clay said. “He got to the interview, and the person who greeted him said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Clay, but we do not hire professional negroes.’ What’s so amazing to me is that this didn’t dissuade him from his dream. He eventually applied again and got hired.”
The younger Clay said the story of perseverance and dedication stuck with him because when applying to electrical engineering programs he was “obsessed” with UC Berkeley.
“I didn’t get in straight out of high school and went to UC Santa Cruz for two years. But that whole time, I sent letters to about 100 different people to help me and tell me what to focus on and who to talk to, and I got in as a junior.”
Not all of his father’s stories were uplifting or had easy, happy endings. Restrictive housing covenants that prohibited people of color from living in certain communities dictated where the family found a home, and police in the 1990s often pulled over the elder Clay in his Mercedes.
Clay Sr.’s memoir says being asked to show his driver’s license and vehicle registration was tragic but not surprising due to “driving while Black.” Chris Clay said the hardest story to accept happened immediately after his father was granted membership in the San Francisco Olympic Club.
“He was an avid golfer and so excited. It was big news because he was a Black man. It was even in the newspapers. But then he got a message on the answering machine at home. An angry voice said, ‘If you show your Black face at the club, you and your family are dead.’ This was in progressive California, not the Deep South. It was shocking to us. It still feels like it happened yesterday.”
Values passed to Chris Clay and his two brothers by their parents included family coming before career, education as a priority and treating everyone with respect.
“When he was at his peak professionally, we met high-ranking CEOs, and he treated them great. But also when we’d stay at a hotel, he was so warm and friendly with the bellhop or the doorman (that) you’d think they were family,” Chris recalled.
The younger Clay’s mother, who died of cancer in 1995, was not only “the angel on dad’s shoulder,” but a whip-smart woman, he said. She always encouraged her husband to fight for what he believed in and never settle for second-best.
“She was like the corner man to a championship boxer. She made sure we all stayed true to our beliefs and goals,” he said.
As parents of two sons, Chris Clay and his wife, Iris, pass along lessons of respect and hard work inherited from their families and ancestors but also warnings and advice about staying safe in a country where racism still affects the lives and freedoms of Black people and others.
Chris Clay drives a Mercedes like his dad used to and said he’s been questioned “countless times,” including once while filling his tank at a gas station. He said an officer tapped on the window and, trying to be subtle, said “A lot of nice cars like yours have been stolen in the area, so keep an eye out. Oh, and may I see your license?”
“At those times, I remember my dad telling me when you’re in a store and the manager is following you around, it’s not normal or OK but be polite, keep your hands visible,” he said. “And always, when interacting with the police, be courteous, don’t move suddenly, answer their questions so you get out of any situation unharmed.”
Asked why he and his brothers are intent on spreading the word about their father, the younger Clay said that “Our goal is for my dad and others like him who are so influential, and yet no one has heard of them, to become household names. He built the best family he could, then built a career around that. I would absolutely like to see his book in school libraries and curriculums.”