Bill Jacobson and His Life in Tennis and Tech



William “Bill” Jacobson

By Meg Cotner

We are pleased to share a profile of William “Bill” Jacobson, a UCT alumnus (B.Com 1956 and LLB 1958), and South African native who came to this country in the late 1950s to study at Stanford University. After a short back and forth between the US and SA, California has been his home since 1963. He is particularly well-known for his work regarding tennis statistics, and has made contributions to business, technology, geophysical exploration and historical maps. He also has an enduring love for UCT.

He was born in Johannesburg in 1936, and at the age of ten he moved with his family west to Cape Town. While in school he excelled at tennis, and his good grades helped him gain acceptance to UCT in 1954, where he studied law and economics. In 1958 he was awarded a scholarship to Stanford University; he got his MBA there in 1960. It was an auspicious time for Bill because that year he also met his wife, Yvonne Olson, a farmer’s daughter. They married in Johannesburg in 1962.

After a stint at Consolidated Glassworks Ltd., a large glass manufacturer in Germiston, Bill and Yvonne returned to Santa Clara County in 1963 and went on to raise three children (two girls, one boy). They’ve lived there ever since in the house they built in 1968, overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

Memories of UCT

Bill talked to us a little bit about his busy time at UCT. “I followed a very rigorous academic program, completing two degrees in five years,” he recalls. “I was captain, coach and leading player of our Varsity tennis program; during my active years, we won Grand Challenge team trophies, and the Wilcox Cup three times, the South African Universities intercollegiate event.”

He adds, “I reached the semifinals of the national South African junior championships in 1954, and played in the South African championships and numerous regional open events, beating several national and international players of the day.”

Bill had an appetite for social justice, and was a leading student member of SHAWCO in Windermere. While he was there they hired full time professional staff and created lasting welfare, night school and child care programs. He was also on the student Rag committee and helped raise thousands of Rand for SHAWCO and other charities.

“I was elected member of the Students’ Representative Council, and spent three years fighting the national government’s attempts to impose apartheid on the Universities,” he explains. “I was chairman of the local NUSAS (National Union of South African Students) committee, and organized public lectures on race, culture, religion, nationalism, politics and economics. I had the distinction of the SA government appointing a beautiful blond spy, a la James Bond, to monitor, unsuccessfully, my ‘nefarious’ student activities.”

The Impact of UCT Experiences

“Everything that I have done and learned over the past 60 years convinces me that the academic excellence at UCT is comparable to the best in the world,” says Bill. “This gave a former student like myself great confidence in my endeavors in every field of activity.”

Bill deeply values his time at UCT and appreciates his experiences there.Through his studies he developed an ability to multitask and that has served him well in his career. And he cherishes opportunities to see everyone he encounters as an individual rather than simply a member of a group, something he also acquired at UCT. His training in law helped him during his life as a business leader, especially when it came to handling contracts, leases, and other legal matters.

After UCT

Between his UCT and Stanford days, he headed to Europe and played tennis for four months on the international circuit (including a qualifying singles tournament at Wimbledon), but as an amateur it was not a financially viable path, so he ended up taking on other jobs, including one as a door-to-door salesman for Encyclopedia Britannica. He and Yvonne returned to the US in 1963, with no job and unsure of their future…at first. Bill’s proficiency in computers, developed during time in SA, turned out to be a huge help. “This opened the door for me to get a job as a systems engineer at IBM Corporation, where I underwent very rigorous training,” he explains. “I installed systems and trained business customers in SF over the next three years. I had a natural affinity for the logic of computers and this expertise drove my career for the next thirty years in the high-tech industry.”

In 1969, Bill co-founded a geophysical exploration company, GeoMetrics, with a small group of scientists. Their customers were national organizations like the U.S. Geological Survey and oil and mining companies who used their equipment and services in the early stages of exploration. They developed sophisticated computer charting and analysis methods to interpret data from aircraft flown in a grid over a target area. He diversified the company by buying a Canadian manufacturer of gamma ray spectrometers used in uranium exploration; acquired a company with five aircraft in Australia, and found some major uranium deposits; and secured very large airborne surveys in Zambia, Botswana and other central African countries, and in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.

At this point in his career, Bill’s past as a tennis player became more relevant than he could have ever imagined. “My son had started to play tennis, and I became aware of the possibilities for the uses of computers in sports,” he explains. “With the support of some of the big names in the tech industry, like Tom Whitney, designer of the first Apple computer, leading coaches, and former tennis stars like Billie Jean King, I formed Sports Software Inc. and designed an application, CompuTennis, to promote the use of tennis statistics for the development of junior, collegiate and professional players – and for use by television and print media in presenting the game.” It was an instant success with the media, and coaches and players of all levels used it for many years. He was inducted into the USTA Nor Cal Tennis Hall of Fame in 2015 in recognition of his contribution to the game.

Currently he serves as investment and property management company to manage his family’s investments, residential and commercial real estate.

The William and Yvonne Jacobson Digital Africana Program

Along with his influence in tennis, tech, and business, maps are an important part of Bill’s life. “I developed a love of history and politics at UCT, which in turn led me into collecting old maps,” he explains. “I bought my first antique map in London in 1959. My interest in antique African maps culminated in about 1999 when I learned of Dr. Oscar Norwich’s death in South Africa. His widow Rose said that she was interested in selling his collection, and I negotiated the sale to Stanford University Libraries, and co-funded the purchase.”

He continues, “My interest went beyond the maps alone, and we arranged an exhibit of the maps and a wide array of historic exploration literature, for which I also wrote my book, The Rediscovery of Africa, 1300 to 1900. I was attracted by the Stanford Libraries’ efforts to digitize all their map collections to make them available to many more scholars, and supported this effort and their state-of the-art map room. Since then, I have come the full circle by helping fund the digital map library at UCT, and encouraging the collaboration between these two outstanding universities in the digitization of historic materials and the use of contemporary technologies to share this information worldwide.”

And it is at UCT where some of the most exciting progress is happening. “We are planning to create a geospatial center in the libraries, to encourage the use of geo-referenced mapping for many contemporary activities such as urban planning, mining, agriculture, the military, law and custom, population densities, energy, the environment, and industrial development. Today, geospatial research and development helps define a great university.”

We’d like to thank Bill for spending some time to speak about his life and his contributions to UCT, and the world. Bill, UCT is grateful for all you do.

Please see an edited version of this interview on page 7 in the November 2017 Giving@UCT newsletter

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