So long, “Ancient Mariner” Craig Watjen

The Seattle Times this week reported on the death of Craig Watjen, the 74-year-old former Microsoft assistant treasurer who joined the company soon after it moved its operations from New Mexico to Redmond, WA, in the 1970s.

Watjen set up the company’s accounting department in 1981 and was “key to moving Microsoft forward in the early days” said Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

A native of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Watjen was a good enough clarinettist to gain places at the Juliard School and New England Conservatory after he graduated from Harvard. He occasionally played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But he gave up music to go to Stanford University’s graduate business school and took up a position with Silicon Valley based General Recorded Tape (GRT), where he met GRT clients Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

After defecting to the embryonic PC software company, Watjen coped with the 16-hour days and multiple projects “with aplomb and always with a smile on his face”, according to former colleague and Microsoft CFO John Connors. “[He] very outgoing, especially for a finance guy," Connors added.

As an early Microsoft stockholder, Watjen was a wealthy man when he retired as assistant head of the company’s treasury department in 1990. He invested most of his spare time and money buying and fixing up vintage Ford and Lincoln cars. Although he didn’t go back to his clarinet, he indulged his love of music by sponsoring the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Opera and gave a 4,490 pipe organ to Seattle’s Benaroya Hall.

He also became an investor in the Seattle Mariners baseball team. The Seattle Times reports he turned up regularly turned up at the club’s baseball fantasy camps during the 1990s sporting a Mariners jersey and catcher’s mitt and was often referred to as the “Ancient Mariner”. Having played in the position on his high-school team, Watjen wasn’t bad, his wife Joan said, adding, “He was such a wannabe”.

Watjen was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992, and appeared to have been in remission for more than 15 years until some cells metastasised into his liver. As a parting shot, he gave $50m to help found Light Sciences Oncology, a research institute dedicated to developing less invasive radiation treatments for cancer.

What a guy! Having a chunk of Microsoft’s millions to hand certainly must have helped, but Watjen demonstrated real flair with what he did with it, demonstrating that it is possible to be an accountant and lead a colourful life.

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