Obit: Arnold Spielberg, 103, World War II Vet, Computer Pioneer, Father of the Director

Arnold Meyer Spielberg,103, of Pacific Palisades died here of natural causes on August 25, 2020.

Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 6, 1917, to Samuel and Rebecca Spielberg. It was Arnold’s early love of science and academia that would be the first indicators of a lifelong passion for learning, storytelling, and innovation. Fascinated by electricity at just six years old, Arnold turned the family attic into a vaudevillian laboratory and invited his friends in to experience his inventions. One by one, they would line up, hold onto the electrodes of a shock machine he crafted by wiring batteries together, and see how much of a current they could endure.

At the age of 12, he acquired a ham radio and opened his ears to a world well beyond the small Midwestern town.

His daughter, Sue Spielberg, recalled that it was his interest in his ham radio that first opened the door to a lifetime of listening and friendship. “He connected with strangers and this affability is something he carried over into real life, often befriending another person in line at Starbucks or the table next to him,” she said.

Daughter Anne Spielberg also remembered, “He would say that if we just listened closely, there was more out there than we could ever imagine.”

After graduating from high school in 1934, Arnold worked for his cousin’s Lerman Brothers department store in Cynthiana, Kentucky, creating a system for increasing the profits in the women’s shoe department.

Less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Arnold enlisted in the Army and brought his electrical prowess to the overseas war effort. As radio operator and chief communications man for the 490th Bomb Squadron, also known as the “Burma Bridge Busters” for its designated mission of bombing Japanese bridges and railroad lines, Arnold was predominantly in charge of the communications between the bombers and the ground.

In a move that presaged the illustrious career of his first child and only son, Steven Spielberg, Arnold also repaired the movie projectors used by the troops. Additionally, he wired the barracks for classical music. In fact, it was his love affair with classical music that underscored another love affair with a young woman from home. Arnold wrote affectionately to Leah Posner, who shared his enthusiasm for Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.

When Arnold returned from the war in 1945, they were married, and Steven, born the following year, would later describe their home as, at times, a beautiful mix of music and machinery – “a remarkable intersection of the right and left brain.”

With Arnold and engineers arguing in one room, and Leah in the living room playing piano with other musicians, Steven and his sisters, Anne, Sue, and Nancy, grew up in an environment that encouraged both logical reasoning and marching to the beat of their own drum.

Shortly after his marriage to Leah, Arnold returned to school on the G.I. Bill, obtaining a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Cincinnati. In 1949, upon his graduation, he got a job at RCA in New Jersey.

As Nancy describes, her father was instrumental in the “early, early” days of computing, primarily working on RCA’s first commercial and business computer, the RCA BIZMAC. At General Electric, Arnold and a team of others designed the GE-200 series of mainframe computers. Perhaps best known for the GE-225, the series was part of a collaboration with Dartmouth on the creation of a time-sharing operating system, a move revolutionary for the early 1960s.

From the Army to RCA, General Electric, Electronic Arrays, SDS, Burroughs, and IBM, from his involvement with the patent on the first electronic cash register to his work in data processing, Arnold’s career in technology and computers took him across the globe.

A recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Pioneer Award, Arnold’s imprint on the future of computers proved immeasurable.

Steven credits his father with his own love for gadgets and the sense of possibility they inspire, once saying, “When I see a PlayStation, when I look at a cell phone – from the smallest calculator to an iPad – I look at my dad and I say, ‘My dad and a team of geniuses started that.'”

With Arnold’s evolving career came numerous cross-country moves for the family. Once east coasters, and then finding a sense of home in Phoenix, Arizona, the family moved again, this time to Northern California. Though the changes proved difficult and ultimately contributed to the end of the marriage, Arnold never gave up the role of bedtime storyteller, especially when it came to his children. Nancy loved that “he taught us how to say the Shema (a prayer that is basic to Judaism) before we went to sleep each evening.”

And in the tradition of the fantastical stories he concocted as a boy, he created for his own children a variety of mischievous adventures. In describing the almost ethereal experience of the four of them being tucked in by their father and treated to his tales, Anne once said, “I always felt really safe with my father.”

On family vacations, he taught his children how to fish, and how to build a campfire. But what they remember most about the time with him in the wilderness were his lessons on the importance of curiosity and his belief that listening was not just an act of patience, but of love.

In 1997, Arnold married Bernice Colner in a small wedding in Beverly Hills. Together, they traveled and even formed a tender and warmhearted friendship with Leah that lasted until Bernice’s passing in 2016.

At 95, Arnold once again showed his profound will to live. After a groundbreaking medical procedure, Arnold went on to live the better part of a decade – visiting Israel with his daughters, attending Burma Bridge Busters reunions, studying pottery, and visiting the National WWII Museum.

In 2012, Arnold was recognized by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for his promotion of humanity through technology, and his work in organizing Holocaust testimonials.

In more recent years, he and Leah came full circle, returning to the desert for an annual family Passover pilgrimage. Kindred spirits, the two presided over the Seder, with Arnold often singing Jewish hymns from the Haggadah, and remarking on how wonderful it was to see his family, once again, gathered around the table.

True to form, he continued his thirst for knowledge until the very end, enjoying online courses in everything from thermodynamics to history and astronomy.

During his final days, Arnold’s family, friends, and medical team were privy to what Sue has always referred to as her father’s “strength, grace, pragmatism, and stoicism.”

He was surrounded by his four children, screening movies, listening to Russian and Yiddish folk melodies, reading the ‘funnies,’ and sharing time with them on his patio overlooking the hills of … Pacific Palisades.

Holding hands and looking up at the night sky proved poignantly reminiscent of the family’s early days in Arizona, where, as Nancy would recall, “Dad would wake us all up in the middle of the night, drive us in our pajamas into the black desert, and watch meteor showers from the hood of the car.” Truth be told, Steven, Anne, Sue, and Nancy would all point to this memory of their father, saying that he taught them to “love to research,” to “expand their mind,” to “keep their feet on the ground, but reach for the stars,” and most fatefully to “look up.”

On the night of Arnold’s passing, his children pulled their chairs next to their father’s bedside. But this time, they weren’t patiently waiting to hear one of the many stories Arnold had regaled three generations of children with over the years. Instead, in a moving tribute to the family man, they gently returned the gift of storytelling their father had, for decades, imbued in all of them.

“Thank you for my life. I love you, Dad. And then, so then…and then so then, what comes next…” they whispered lovingly, and for the last time.

Arnold is preceded in death by his sister, Natalie Spielberg Guttman, his brother, Irvin “Buddy” Spielberg, his wife, Bernice Colner Spielberg, and first wife, Leah Spielberg Adler.

Arnold is survived by his children, film director Steven Spielberg (wife, Kate Capshaw); screenwriter Anne Spielberg (husband, Danny Opatoshu); marketing executive Sue Spielberg (husband Jerry Pasternak); and producer Nancy Spielberg (husband Shimon Katz). He is also survived by 4 stepchildren, 11 grandchildren, 8 great grandchildren, and countless adoring cousins, nieces, and nephews.

Due to circumstances and safety precautions around the ongoing pandemic, a celebration of life is tentatively set for Fall of 2021 and aligned with the Jewish tradition of unveiling the headstone.

The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans or the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.

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