Talking with A mathematics and Mozart virtuoso

Name: Dan Leeson
Age: 81
Home: Moldaw Residences, Palo Alto
Occupation: Retired
Resume: Math teacher, IBM executive, musician, author of four books on Mozart


J.: Where are you from originally? Did you have a Jewish upbringing?

Dan Leeson: I grew up in Paterson, N.J., in a very strong Jewish community. There were 17 synagogues, four kosher butchers and three kosher bakeries — one of which I worked for. Yiddish was the lingua franca — that was what we all spoke.

J.: Do you still speak it?

DL: Unfortunately, I don’t any longer, because I rarely have an opportunity to use it. You lose it if you don’t speak it.

Dan Leeson

J.: What brought you out West?

DL: After I got out of the Army in 1958, I was hired by IBM — I had a math degree — and in 1976 I moved out here for a position [in Palo Alto]. Earlier I had been a consultant, installing and selling computers. And when I say computers, you have to understand they were these huge, large-scale machines at that time. They took up an entire room and the big ones could cost as much as $20,000 rent per month.

J.: What do you think of the tech world now? Would you ever have predicted how big it would get, its influence?

DL: It’s astonishing. Who would have thought the computing world would have such a dramatic impact on civilization? Here’s a story, though I can’t verify it’s true: I wrote one of the earliest books on computer programming, in 1962 … [in he ’70s] my son went to Homestead High School in Cupertino, and his class on computers was using my book on basic programming concepts. The interesting part is that Steve Jobs had been in that class previously and used that book, so I like to think the very first computer programming book Steve Jobs used was mine.

J.: After working at IBM for 30 years, do you stay up to date on changes in the computer industry?

DL: No. I don’t want to stay updated. It was bad enough staying updated when I was working with IBM. I no longer wish to exhaust myself maintaining my technical abilities.  At my age there is no purpose in it. That’s just not how I want to spend my time.

J.: So after retiring you decided to become a teacher?

DL: Yes, after 30 years with them, I retired from IBM in 1986. I retired on a Friday, and on Monday I went to De Anza College and said “I have these degrees in mathematics, I would like to teach here.” I taught for 15 years at De Anza College.

J.: When did you find the time to not only play music, but to become a pre-eminent Mozart authority?

DL: Oh, that was all over the course of the past 45 years. While I worked at IBM and was teaching, I was also a professional performing symphonic clarinetist. I was tenured with the San Jose Symphony for many years. I played with the San Diego Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, the Oakland Symphony. You just make time to practice — an hour or two a day. It’s no big deal.

J.: You’re not playing anymore, though. But you’re still writing for musicology journals?

DL: I’ve been published by many musicology journals, and among others, I edited “The New Mozart Edition,” which was 120 volumes of his music. I’ve also published four books about Mozart. And recently I’ve been writing short fiction — short stories, often with Jewish themes.

Do you think there’s a relation or connection between your loves of classical music and math?

DL: People always say that, but they’re pretty different. Albert Einstein was a violin player, but he was a poor one. There’s a story about a string quartet coming to Princeton and, at a party after the concert, they asked him if he’d like to join in, so he sat down and played with them. But he couldn’t keep the rhythm correctly, and finally one of the musicians said to him, “What’s the matter? Can’t you count?”

“Talking with …”
focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.