My friend and longtime collaborator Tomi Pierce died on Monday. I wanted to share this sad news with readers of this site, who may know her thanks to her role in the creation of Prince of Persia (documented in the Old Journals) and as co-writer of The Last Express.
The obituary below doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what her friendship, good and wise advice, and creative genius have meant to me for the past 25 years. I wish I had a dagger of time that could have given me even a little bit more time with her.
TOMI PIERCE (1953-2010)
There can be few worse diagnoses — an inexorable, untreatable neurodegenerative disease — and for Tomi, just 54 when she was diagnosed and with so much to look forward to, it was especially brutal, especially unfair. Tomi certainly felt it was. She fought the disease, seeking out frontiers-of-medicine treatments and, Tomi-style, confronting it with a paradoxical and whimsical mix of maudlin resignation and I’m-going-to-beat-this verve. She organized her last birthday party in 2009, a “wake without a corpse… yet” as she liked to describe it, as a “Memento Mori” event: there were black balloons, an Izzi Kirkland-created skeleton piñata, and Tomi wore skeleton earrings. She was greatly amused by the guest who asked her what “Memento Mori” meant in Japanese. If you can’t beat death, you might as well join it.
Tomi had no end of advantages over the rest of us — she died at 56 looking 26 and, despite her occupation, her brain was definitely a pre-internet model, with a photographic memory capable of storing and retrieving vast quantities of data, pieces of music, and reams of poetry in various languages.
As the daughter of a geophysicist, the early odds seemed to favor a scientific career for the extraordinarily precocious infant. By 18 months, she could recite the periodic table by heart. But Tomi’s lifelong propensity for taking the *other* path asserted itself early (perhaps under the influence of her maternal grandfather Yojiro Ishizaka, one of Japan’s most beloved novelists), and science ended up being relegated to her younger sister Naomi, while young Tomi turned to music, literature and poetry. When Tomi at age 8 wondered about a philosophical issue raised by C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books (what happened after The Last Battle?), rather than bother her school teacher, she simply wrote directly to the author — and received a thoughtful reply, one which Lewis’s biographers are still puzzling over. With Tomi’s intellect and memory, toiling over schoolbooks was unnecessary. Standardized tests, it turns out, can have some benefit in identifying brains like Tomi’s; despite attending a large public high school in suburban Denver that provided little in the way of actual education, she scored perfect 800s on her SATs and achievement tests. Harvard and Yale both accepted her, but Yale offered a scholarship. Yale it would be.
Tomi was fearless, and had an irrepressible zest for adventure. She was a consummate tomboy. There was the time she woke up her friend Claire Hill and insisted they take Claire’s horse Trixie for a midnight ride. Where would you take Trixie at midnight? Onto the Lakewood Country Club golf course, which always looks so inviting for a ride but which, for some unfathomable reason, prohibits horses. Trixie’s hoofs marked many a green that night.
Tomi was also calm under fire. Even at age ten, she was the one you’d want with you in a foxhole. When, on a subsequent escapade, Claire and Tomi found themselves lost in the Rockies with night fast approaching, Tomi kept Claire calm by insisting they sing all the Gilbert & Sullivan they knew (which was a lot), remaining unflappable throughout until the right trail finally materialized. Their singing wasn’t bad either, as judged by the cellist Rostropovich, who overheard the two girls singing a Bach invention on a ski lift in Aspen and invited them home for a command performance. Claire’s father was upset that they had spoken to a stranger until he discovered the identity of their mystery admirer.
Tomi has escaped more than her share of close brushes with death over the years, including amoebic dysentery and a bus accident high on the Khyber Pass, a military coup in Kabul, a near-fatal attack of peritonitis in the south of France, and severe injury in a car crash, whose aftermath caused her to drop out of Cornell Law School and enroll instead in Stanford Business School, where she graduated with an MBA in 1982. In her brief stint at law school, she dumbfounded her first-year torts professor when put on the spot by answering in class, “Education is more than the simple recitation of facts.” The exchange ended with the professor, his back against the wall, saying: “This is a classroom, not a courtroom, young lady.”
Tomi took a leap into the fledgling software industry to co-found Sensei Software in 1984 under the wing of Doug Carlston, founder of Broderbund Software. There were two results: First, an award-winning line of educational products, Calculus, Geometry, and Physics; and second, Tomi was forced, much to her chagrin, to actually learn calculus, geometry and physics.
Tomi’s years of toil in the Broderbund attic at 47 Paul Drive launched a long creative association with game designer Jordan Mechner, who was programming Prince of Persia in the next room. Jordan’s 1997 adventure game The Last Express showcases Tomi’s storytelling brilliance as well as her wide-ranging acquaintance with European literature and culture. The research stage of this four-year labor of love included a journey into the bowels of Paris’s Gare de l’Est to coax from retired French railway employees certain closely guarded secrets of the 1914 Orient Express, an odyssey Tomi documented in her Newsweek article about the making of the game.
Tomi cleverly escaped the scenic delights of a San Rafael industrial park to decamp for Paris, where she lived and worked for a year setting up the new European division of Broderbund. Whether Tomi was actually fluent in French at the beginning of this project, as she claimed when applying for the job, may never be known; what is certain is that by the end of it, she spoke French not only fluently, but poetically, sometimes expressing business matters in phrases so lyrical that her Parisian colleagues were left shaking their heads in respectful amazement.
In 1994, Broderbund Software founder Doug Carlston, having previously secured the publishing rights to Tomi’s software products, secured even more valuable future rights by marrying Tomi herself. Doug’s daughter Colleen served as flower girl, strewing rose petals across the Colorado landscape during the ceremony.
Tomi’s love of cinema, tracing back to her undergraduate days as a director of Yale’s Berkeley Film Society, found expression throughout her life, not only in her writing and photography, but in her participation in a myriad of diverse projects: from Chavez Ravine, an award-winning PBS documentary about the neighborhood displaced by Dodger Stadium, which Tomi executive-produced, to the catacombs, secret passageways and puzzle rooms woven throughout the magical home she and Doug designed and built in Snowmass, Colorado.
Tomi’s unique intellect, and almost preternatural ability to unerringly home in on the crucial point in a bewildering mass of data, made her invaluable as a consultant to Applied Minds, MetaWeb, and other clients. During this time, she also devoted immeasurable care and attention to her son Denman through the most difficult stages of a childhood beset by life-threatening health challenges and autism spectrum disorder. Despite his disabilities, Tomi’s loving care insured that Denman had a magical and fulfilling childhood. Even as her own abilities began to diminish through her long and difficult illness, she rejoiced in Denman’s achievements of milestones that doctors had told her might never be possible. She never wavered in her complete faith in his potential. Den’s world of nurses and caregivers became the focal point of her life and among her closest companions.
Through it all, Tomi and Doug lived a life rich in adventure and foreign travel, often including friends and family in their journeys to Africa, Albania, Iceland, and Japan, where Colleen developed strong ties with Tomi’s Japanese family, becoming fluent in Japanese and attending Kyoto University.
For her last venture, Tomi returned to her tech startup roots, co-founding 24 Hour Diner with Patrick Tufts. Typically of Tomi, she insisted on working right up to the end, holding her last board meeting less than a week before her death. Tomi loved to think creatively and strategically about the challenges facing the young company as it found its way in the world.
What no biography can capture is the extraordinary generosity that permeated all Tomi’s relationships, from her nearest and dearest to people she met only once; from the world’s great intellects, movers and shakers, to the toll-takers on the Golden Gate Bridge who knew her by name. Tomi had an extraordinary gift for connecting with people on the most personal, human level, seemingly without effort and often within moments of the first meeting. She had a charisma that couldn’t be simulated or feigned, because she was only being herself. She thought constantly of other people — as anyone who has traveled with her can attest, having been subjected to the endless delays and inconvenience of her insistence on finding the right gift not only for her friends and family, but for a long list of others. When she mailed the final payment for her college loans to the financial office at Yale, she sent along a big box of chocolates to everyone in the office. They wrote back to thank her, noting that no one in the long history of that institution had ever thanked them so graciously before.
Tomi was generous not only with gifts but with her time, help, and advice, maneuvering and strategizing for others’ benefit; most valuable of all, she was generous of herself. Deeply loyal, she inspired loyalty in others. (She could also hold a grudge for a remarkably long time.) In her wide-ranging interests, pursuits, and travels, she brought together people from universes that don’t normally intersect.
Tomi lives on in the hearts of all of us, but especially of Doug, Denman, Colleen, Art and Rui, Naomi, and the rest of her family, as well as the countless friends around the world who have been touched by her unique spirit. A bright light has gone out but continues to sparkle in our memories. We miss her terribly.