Nation & World

In memoriam through June 1: ‘Pong’ game creator, political prankster who got Nixon

Josh Greenfeld
Josh Greenfeld

(Compiled from The Star’s news services.)

Samuel F. Dabney, an electrical engineer who laid the groundwork for the modern video game industry as a co-founder of Atari and helped create the hit console game “Pong,” died May 26 at his home in Clearlake, California. He was 81.

The cause was esophageal cancer, his wife, Carolyn Dabney, said.

Dabney, known as Ted, brought arcade video games to the world with Atari, a startup he and a partner, Nolan Bushnell, founded in Sunnyvale, California, in the early 1970s.

At a time when computers — the main arena then for programmers working to build games — could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, Dabney spurned them altogether. Instead he tinkered in a workshop he had set up in his daughter’s bedroom and used plywood and fake mahogany paneling to build Atari’s first consoles.

Dabney used cheap television components to create an interactive motion system and, in 1971, the world’s first commercial video game, “Computer Space.” It was followed the next year by “Pong,” a simple yet beguiling game in which short vertical lines bat a ricocheting dot back and forth to the sound of beep tones. At its peak “Pong” was being played on 35,000 consoles in bars and game rooms across the United States.

Fred Kovaleski, whose international tennis-playing career became his cover in the 1950s while working as a spy for the CIA, died May 25 at his home in New York City. He was 93. Serge Kovaleski, his son, said the cause was prostate cancer that had spread.

Kovaleski was well into his career on the tennis circuit, having played at Wimbledon and in tournaments abroad and in the United States, when he joined the CIA in 1951 and began training in spycraft.

Within three years, his ability to play tennis and also speak Russian became essential when Yuri Rastvorov, a KGB lieutenant colonel and avid tennis player, defected to the United States.

Rastvorov — a major espionage asset who revealed important information about the KGB and the Soviet government —defected in Tokyo and was taken to a CIA safe house in Potomac, Maryland, where agents interrogated him for hours every day for months. Kovaleski, his handler, did not participate in the interrogations; at night, they talked, and the information he gleaned went into his reports.

“It was all business,” Kovaleski was quoted as saying in a 2006 article in The Washington Post Magazine, written by his son, who is now a reporter for The New York Times. “It was stern and sterile. The attitude was that this is an enemy officer, and we owned him now, and we were going to squeeze all the information possible out of him.”

Dick Tuck, an impish Democratic Party operative who was the political hobgoblin of Richard M. Nixon for decades, died May 28 at an assisted-living center in Tucson, Arizona. He was 94. The cause was not immediately known.

Tuck made his name tweaking national Republican candidates, but also directed more than half a dozen successful state and local races for Democrats. He managed the 1967 campaign of the first African-American to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city, Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, and was an advance man for presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy during the 1968 primary campaign.

Mostly, Tuck was remembered for his hectoring of Nixon, a Republican whose earliest political tactics included questioning his opponents’ loyalty to the United States. Their paths first crossed in 1950, when then-Rep. Nixon, R-Calif., was running for an open Senate seat against a liberal Democratic opponent, Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas. Nixon tried to smear Douglas as a communist sympathizer.

Tuck was working part time for the Douglas campaign but ended up doing advance work for Nixon. Tuck arranged for the candidate to speak in one of the largest auditoriums available at a time when he knew few people would attend. He called Nixon to the microphone, saying the candidate would speak about a topic “all Californians care about, the International Monetary Fund.” A flustered Nixon delivered a disjointed speech.

In 1956, as Nixon awaited his party’s renomination as vice president, Tuck arranged for garbage trucks to drive by the San Francisco convention center bearing large signs reading “Dump Nixon.”

Camilla Dietz Bergeron, who prospered in divergent vocations on Wall Street and on Madison Avenue, died May 20 at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 76. The cause was mesothelioma, said Gus Davis, her partner in the prominent antique and estate jewelry firm they formed nearly three decades ago and that bears her name.

Bergeron was an economics major when she joined other partners in 1973 to found Furman, Selz, Mager, Dietz and Birney, a boutique financial firm. Initially capitalized at $500,000, the firm was sold as Furman Selz Holding Corp. to the Xerox Corp. in 1987 for $110 million.

Josh Greenfeld, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter also acclaimed for three books about his autistic son, died May 11 in Los Angeles. He was 90. His oldest son, writer Karl Taro Greenfeld, said the cause was pneumonia.

In 1972 Greenfeld helped draw attention to people with developmental disabilities with “A Child Called Noah.” It detailed in journal form the challenges his family faced in raising his younger son who was was nonverbal and difficult to control.

“What’s the matter with Noah?” he wrote. “For the longest time it seemed to depend on what diagnosis we were willing to shop around for. We’ve been told he was mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, autistic, schizophrenic, possibly brain-damaged, or he was suffering from a Chinese box combination of these conditions. But we finally discovered the diagnosis didn’t seem to matter; it was all so sadly academic.”

Two years later Greenfeld shared an Oscar nomination with Paul Mazursky for the screenplay of “Harry and Tonto,” a movie about a road trip taken by a man and his cat. Two more books would follow: “A Place for Noah” (1978) and “A Client Called Noah” (1987). Greenfeld’s books helped other families in the same situation realize they could and should speak up, and become their own best advocates.

Donald H. Peterson Sr., an astronaut who served on the maiden voyage of the space shuttle Challenger and performed a spacewalk to test the ability of repairing the vehicle while it orbited more than 170 miles above the Earth, died May 27 at his home in El Lago, Texas. He was 84. The cause was Alzheimer’s disease and bone cancer, said a daughter, Shari Peterson.

Peterson joined NASA’s astronaut corps in September 1969, two months after Neil Armstrong led the historic first landing on the moon. Fourteen years later, Peterson joined the crew of the sixth NASA space shuttle mission — and the Challenger’s first flight. (The shuttle exploded in 1986 while on its 10th mission.)

Stewart Lupton, a singer-songwriter whose short-lived ’90s band Jonathan Fire*Eater inspired a wave of New York acts in the early 2000s, died May 27 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was 43. Lupton’s family gave no cause of death but said it stemmed from a “desperate attempt to escape the voices that so tormented him.”

Jonathan Fire*Eater released only two albums and a smattering of demos and EPs before its demise in 1998. Yet the band’s screechy, danceable post-punk sound, propelled by a rowdy organ and Lupton’s wails, helped plant the seed of the New York rock revival that would bring the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem to international acclaim.

Jonathan Fire*Eater was known primarily for its chaotic live shows in dingy bars and clubs. After signing to DreamWorks for its 1997 album “Wolf Songs for Lambs,” the band succumbed to dysfunction, attributable largely to Lupton’s tormented relationship to fame and his addiction to heroin. The Los Angeles Times, in 1997, called the band “possibly the most hyped young group that nobody has ever heard of.”