Full Circle: John Rollwagen

I interviewed John Rollwagen, former chairman and CEO of Cray Research, for a Minnesota business magazine article titled “Full Circle.” John’s story is a perfect illustration of the value of connections, synchronicities and how we often find ourselves in someone else’s orbit.


Androcles, the Roman slave who removed a thorn from a lion’s paw, was later spared from death when the lion recognized him in front of a bloodthirsty crowd in the Coliseum. If Androcles had been a Twin Cities business leader, a seemingly isolated incident early in his career would undoubtedly have led to his company capturing the lion’s share of the market years later.

These three stories from Twin Cities businesspeople illustrate the inscrutable relationship between connection and coincidence. Call it karma, reaping what you sow or what goes around comes around; inexorably, like a circle completing itself, scales are balanced and debts repaid.


John Rollwagen

John Rollwagen

When I was 12 years old, George Hanson was my scoutmaster at Cleveland Avenue Methodist Church in St. Paul. In the summer of 1959, when I came back from my first year of engineering school at MIT, I was looking for a summer job and my dad said, “Why don’t you call George Hanson?” I said, “George Hanson, my old scoutmaster?” He said, “Yeah, I read in the paper that some new company is starting up. It’s Control something. George is involved and maybe they’d have a spot for you.”

The company turned out to be Control Data and I did get a summer job there thanks to George, who was the vice president of marketing. My summer job was to help assemble Serial Number 7 of the 1604, which was the first transistorized computer ever and was designed by a fellow named Seymour Cray.

Working at Control Data got me fascinated by computers so I took every computer course you could take at MIT. There were three of them. In fact, the three classes overlapped sufficiently that if you took two, you didn’t need to take the third one. I ended up working at Control Data for two more summers while I was in school. I had kept hearing about this guy Seymour Cray who was already pretty famous at the time but I never met him.

After finishing at MIT, I continued my education at Harvard. When I graduated with an MBA in 1964, I thought, “Now that I know enough engineering and I know everything there is to know about business, if I could find a guy one-tenth as smart as Seymour Cray, I could do the business part and he or she could do the technical part and we’d have a neat little operation.”

In 1972, I was getting a haircut in the basement of Metro Office Park, which was right across 494 from the airport. The barber chair was facing out the door of the barber shop, which was across the hall from the lunchroom. At the time, I wore Coke-bottle glasses and couldn’t see my nose in front of my face. While I’m sitting in the chair a shadow appears in the door and waves. Without my glasses, I couldn’t tell if the shadow was waving at me or across the hall in the lunchroom. So instead of waving like a jerk at the back of somebody’s head, I just sat there. The shadow shrugged and moved on. I turned to the guy in the next chair and said, “Did somebody just stop and wave at me?” He said yes, so I said, “Oh, darn it, you don’t happen to know who it was, do you?” He said, “Well, actually I do. His name is George Hanson. “ I said, “You’ve got to be kidding. Does he have an office here?” He said, “Yeah, he’s right upstairs someplace.”

I went upstairs after my haircut and found a door with little letters nailed into it that spelled out Cray Research. I had heard that Seymour was starting a company and put two and two together. I went in and there was George. I apologized for not waving at him and we renewed our friendship. He said, “I was thinking about calling you because we’re going to have a computer to sell and you could help sell them. But that’s going to be a few years from now because we’re just starting to build it.” Sure enough, three years later, George set up a lunch for me with Seymour Cray, whom I met then for the first time. Seymour offered me a job, I took it, and the rest is history.

Click here to see all my posts featuring cool synchronicity stories.


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