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Jack D. Kuehler, former IBM president, dies at 76

Kuehler guided the company while it dominated the world's computing landscape in the 1980s. (From The New York Times)

Jack D. Kuehler, an electrical engineer who became the highest ranking technologist at IBM and guided strategy as president and later vice chairman while the company dominated the world's computing landscape in the 1980s, died on Dec. 20 in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. He was 76.

The cause was Parkinson's disease, said his wife, Carmen Kuehler.

Kuehler, who was revered by the company's engineering rank and file, stood out in a company that was defined by its blue-suited sales force. Confronting the rise of the microprocessor-based personal computer, Kuehler guided IBM into the open-standards PC workstation business. The resulting computing platform would become the basis for a system that remains the foundation of the company's designs to this day.

Kuehler was the architect of a series of alliances for IBM, shoring up American technology competitiveness and restoring his company's position in the industry as it found itself increasingly under attack from competitors.

He was instrumental in an investment that IBM made in the chip maker Intel when that company was struggling because of the rise of Japanese memory chip manufacturers. He led IBM into a partnership with Hitachi, once one of its most tenacious rivals. He also played a central role in the creation of Sematech, an industry-government alliance created in 1987 to help save the American semiconductor industry.

Later, as Microsoft and Intel became dominant forces in the personal computing world, Kuehler helped shape a partnership with Apple and Motorola in an effort to create a desktop competitor based on combining IBM hardware and Apple's software expertise. The resulting PowerPC microprocessor became the basis for Apple's computers from 1994 to 2006.

Kuehler represented an engineering culture that made IBM a technology powerhouse for more than three decades at the height of its dominance in mainframe computing.

"He was the best of class of a generation of computer engineers in the mainframe era," said Andrew Grove, former chief executive and chairman of Intel. "He was scrupulously straight and passionately competitive."

Inside IBM, Kuehler helped nurture a culture that protected designers known as "wild ducks," an IBM label for computer designers who refused to "fly in formation."

One of those engineers was R. Andrew Heller, a manager who originally led the company into both the Unix and the microprocessor business in the 1980s.

"Jack was a brilliant tactician," said Heller. "He was very helpful in protecting the engineering culture inside IBM."

Indeed, Kuehler served as mentor for a generation of the company's managers.

"Most of what I became at IBM was because of him," said Nicholas M. Donofrio, who followed Kuehler as IBM's technology strategist. "He understood the value of technology and semiconductors, and he knew that they were a key ingredient of IBM's business."

Jack Kuehler was born in Grand Island, Neb., in 1932. He studied mechanical engineering at Santa Clara University and received a master's degree in electrical engineering from the university. Kuehler started at IBM as an associate engineer at the San Jose Research Laboratory in 1958.

He was elected IBM senior vice president in May 1982. He became vice chairman of the board and a member of the executive committee in January 1988. He was elected president in May 1989 and resumed the title of vice chairman in 1993.

He was a trustee of Santa Clara University, and in 2005, with his wife, he donated $1 million to its engineering school.

In addition to his wife, Kuehler is survived by five children, Cindy, Daniel and Christy Chappell, all of the San Diego area, Michael, of Darien, Conn., and David, of Cincinnati; and by 12 grandchildren.