Rolf Illsley, who founded the first high-tech company in Sonoma County and led it for four decades as Optical Coating Laboratory Inc. made scientific breakthroughs used around the world and in outer space, died this week. He was 95.
His company, known widely as OCLI, would become one of the largest private employers in Sonoma County before Illsley retired in 1991.
Illsley died Wednesday in Terra Linda, where he lived. The cause appeared to be heart failure. He was remembered Thursday as an irrepressible soul willing to take big risks and to approach any challenge with intensive inquiry.
“He was miles ahead of you and he was just totally devoted,” recalled Joe Apfel, the company’s former director of research.
Illsley’s son, Roger Illsley of Santa Rosa, said his father combined a great intellectual curiosity and a “can-do spirit.” Illsley lived “a classic 20th century American life,” his son said.
Rolf Illsley grew up in the Great Depression, served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and did United Nations relief work in China before joining with three partners to form an optical coating company in 1948. The partners soon left the company but Illsley persevered.
OCLI would pave the way for a new generation of technology companies in Sonoma County, making it easier for other high-tech companies to locate nearby because it had established a culture of smart, skilled employees critical to success. In 1999, The Press Democrat named Illsley one of the 50 people who had made the biggest impact on Sonoma County during the preceding century.
Before Sonoma County became a hub for Hewlett-Packard facilities or Telecom Valley manufacturers, there was OCLI.
It began operations here in 1950 and went on to make thin-film coated materials used in space exploration, consumer products and currencies printed around the world.
Its coatings were used on the windows of the Mercury spacecraft that John Glenn peered through in 1962 as he orbited the Earth. In the 1970s, the company made special mirrors for the Polaroid SX-70 instant cameras, considered one of the most innovative consumer products of its time.
Today, the coloring shift ink that the U.S. government places on certain currency notes to prevent counterfeiting stems from discoveries made at OCLI. That ink, used by more than 100 countries, now is produced by the Santa Rosa division of Milpitas-based Viavi Solutions. Viavi is an offshoot of JDSU, which purchased OCLI in 2000 for $6.2 billion, the second-largest corporate takeover in Sonoma County history.
Santa Rosa became home to OCLI thanks in part to the advice of an Oakland motorcycle shop owner. Illsley, then 30, had traveled east from Washington, D.C., on his Velocette motorcycle in search of a new home for his young company.
In a interview last May with Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron, Illsley recalled how the shop owner had suggested Santa Rosa.
Illsley visited the town and within two days decided it was a good place to put down roots.
He developed a set of core values that he believes made OCLI successful: Treat people fairly, with respect and dignity; have the best technology; hire the best people; give them the encouragement and the advanced equipment they need to experiment and to excel; and “if your conviction is strong enough, accept the risk in order to achieve.”