One man's vision of continuing excellence

One sunny morning a few weeks ago, Susan Hutchison woke up with a persistent Barry Manilow tune on her mind.

"I turned to my husband, and sang, 'I write the checks that make the whole world sing,' " says Hutchison of the new take on the Manilow hit, "I Write the Songs."

One of the Northwest's most recognizable faces as a former KIRO-TV news anchor, Hutchison does indeed make a lot of people sing with the checkbook for the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, of which she is executive director.

They were definitely singing at the Seattle Symphony in January 2004, when the $50 million Simonyi Fund gave its first major gift — $10 million — to the orchestra in celebration of its centennial.

More grants have gone to such recipients as the Institute for Advanced Study, the Seattle Public Library, Seattle's Museum of Flight, Metropolitan Opera Broadcast and Russian National Orchestra (RNO).

So what does the Simonyi Fund do? It doesn't under-write startups, and it doesn't save failures. Simonyi rewards already excellent causes and helps make them more accessible (like Met Opera broadcasts and touring exhibitions).

Few people realize that the Simonyi Fund was designed to spend the $50 million over a span of only 10 years, after which it "sunsets," or closes its doors. (Simonyi also said, however, that he regards the fund as "an experiment" and that if it is successful, "maybe do something more.")

It might seem odd that Charles Simonyi, a Northwest billionaire software engineer who was born in Hungary, would give $1.5 million to a Russian orchestra. But Simonyi has a long friendship with one of the Russian National Orchestra's associate conductors, Carlo Ponti Jr., who is married to a Hungarian woman and has lots of in-laws in Budapest.

The RNO also is the only Russian orchestra that is free of state support and control. And as Simonyi puts it, it is not the Russians with whom he has a problem: It was the Soviets.

Simonyi left communist Hungary when he was 17, "to pursue his dream as a computer programmer in Denmark," Hutchison explains during a chat in her light-filled, orange-accented office in Bellevue.

A little later, Simonyi pops in to her office to say hello and field a few questions. He is newly returned from an RNO reception in New York, where he was photographed with Ponti's mom, actress Sophia Loren, on one arm, and longtime girlfriend Martha Stewart on the other.

It's a great life for a software czar, who is working hard — seven days a week — on his new Intentional Software Corp. in between the occasional indulgence of his hobbies (collecting modern art, enjoying classical music, piloting both aircraft and his yacht).

But it hasn't been all fun and games. When Simonyi left Hungary, he also left his family behind, and when the bureaucrats discovered he was not going to return, they took away his father's professorship. Simonyi didn't see his family again until the Iron Curtain fell.

His career trajectory has been a remarkable success story: a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, a doctorate from Stanford and a career that began at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC, 1972-80) and Microsoft (1981-2002).

It was at the latter company that he and the teams he managed developed such seminal applications as Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel.

It's irresistible to ask Simonyi whether, as he labored on Microsoft Word, he had any idea that this was the program that would one day be used by millions of people around the world to create documents.

"Absolutely!" Simonyi declares.

"I knew that back in 1975, when the spouses of researchers would come in at night to do their Ph.D. theses and PTA reports [on a prototype]. It was the first time I ever saw civilians working on software for their own sake, as a tool to get something done.

"At that time, a personal computer cost $50,000, and a laser printer $250,000. These were research prototypes. But the point was: It [the Word prototype] was usable. And I knew there would be many, many people out there writing PTA reports on it, among other things."

Simonyi now is turning that vision and confidence to the new company, which is designing a new way to program by streamlining the software-development process with modules.

Hutchison first met Simonyi in the fall of 1995, when she was the emcee for a Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center fundraiser at his home. She later suggested he create a foundation "to protect yourself from people like me." He agreed and asked her to run it.

Simonyi said he wanted to fund excellence in the arts and sciences; Hutchison said she wanted to fund access. Simonyi came up with a synthesis that crystallizes the fund's mission: "Access to Excellence."

"I have a great faith in the future," Simonyi says. In addition to the $50 million for the fund, he has also given $25 million to the Institute for Advanced Study. Fund grants in the amount of about $5.2 million went to 11 science, 12 arts and five education grantees in 2004; last year, a total of about $7.8 million went to 12 grantees each in arts and science, plus eight in education.

The span represents the international diversity of Simonyi's interests: grants to organizations in Hungary, Denmark and France, as well as to an exhibition of Roman art from the Louvre that will come to the Seattle Art Museum in 2007.

Not surprisingly, the fund does not accept unsolicited proposals. Simonyi usually focuses on one-time grants spread out over several years, and he takes great enjoyment in "seeing them working."

Like the Met Opera broadcasts, which bring the experience of great opera to anyone with a radio in small towns across the country?

"Make that a quote!" says the beaming Simonyi.

Then he returns to his own office, where he focuses what he calls "the overwhelming bulk of my work" on his new company. After all: "I have to have money to replenish the fund."

Melinda Bargreen: