Bill Sleeper, a wise-cracking and whip-smart retired electrical engineer, who inspired younger generations with his enthusiasm for technology and opened the eyes of his peers to the wonders of smartphones, has died at the age of 99.
Sleeper, who was featured as GeekWire’s Geek of the Week in October 2011, was an unabashed tech evangelist — encouraging seniors to set aside their qualms about technology and embrace its potential to improve their lives.
At his retirement home in Mill Creek, Wash., he was known as the “tech whiz” — teaching technology classes, helping residents with computer problems and showing them how to print mailing labels. Sleeper loved listening to the Peterson birdsong app on his iPhone, and he marveled at the ability to use Dragon Dictation to enter text into the phone just by speaking.
He joked about putting QR codes on his walker that, when decoded, would deliver a threat to would-be thieves: “If you steal my walker, the Mafia will hunt you down.”
The smartphone is a “magic gadget” that makes it possible to “have the whole world in your hand,” he wrote in a four-page guide for the classes that he taught.
“So get with it, Kiddo!” he urged. “Take the plunge. Get connected.”
Sleeper’s personality and his love for technology made him a frequent subject of media attention, including profiles in newspapers, feature stories on television and even a role in a national Best Buy television ad — in which he proudly proclaimed his status as “GeekWire’s Geek of the Week!”
Later he sent us this picture of himself behind the scenes at the shoot, being fussed over by a member of the crew, a grin on his face.
In an email this week informing of us his death, Sleeper’s daughter, Barbara, thanked us “for all the celebrity fun you made possible for him at the end of his life. He told everyone as recently as two weeks ago he was ‘still hoping for one more gig.’ Now he has a whole new audience.”
Sitting at his kitchen table three years ago, at 96, Sleeper held up his iPhone and explained his appreciation for technology.
“Here I have this thing which I consider a gateway to the world. I just can’t believe how marvelous it is,” he said. “I come from so far back. … I used to read science fiction. The more advanced science fiction had this. It’s absolutely unbelievable. … I call this anti-depression, because if you use this, you can’t be depressed.”
He knew this first-hand. Sleeper’s daughter said the iPhone helped her dad through the long illness experienced by her mom, Norma, his wife of 66 years, who died in 2011.
“This is what kept him sane,” Barbara Sleeper said at the time. “He was emailing everybody, and texting people. He gradually jumped up to every iPhone.”
The Senior Services agency in Seattle gave Sleeper its annual Inspire Positive Aging Award in 2012, saying, “Sleeper’s understanding of technology is particularly impressive when you consider he was already 60 years old by the time Microsoft was founded.”
In this video, Sleeper delivers his message to seniors.
Born in 1915, William H. Sleeper II grew up in Exeter, N.H., and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
He told the Everett Herald newspaper that his father was an attorney who disinherited him after he quit Harvard Law School. Sleeper worked for companies including Lockheed, GE and Boeing, in addition to MIT and Caltech, before landing at Raytheon, where he worked until he was 75.
Update: Here is a full obituary with more information about Bill Sleeper’s life. A “celebration of life party” is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2015, at 14905 Bothell-Everett Highway. In lieu of flowers, the family says to please send charitable donations to the Community and Family Services Foundation to help foster children or the Port Townsend Aero Museum to help kids learn how to fly.
We took this video of Sleeper in his kitchen while interviewing him for the original Geek of the Week profile. So long, Bill. You were a true geek.