Harvey Ovshinsky’s relationship with his father is one of the themes in his fascinating memoir, Scratching the Surface (Wayne State University Press, 2021), though the book, well, merely scratched the surface.
“I loved my father, and he loved me,” said writer, producer and media pioneer Harvey Ovshinsky. “I knew that, and he knew that.”
“But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t always an easy relationship.”
You might call that a dramatic understatement.
Life has seldom been easy for the sons of fathers with outsized personalities, especially if they are famous — and Stan Ovshinsky was, to put it mildly, both. The son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Belarus, he came to be recognized as one of the greatest scientists and inventors of his time, although he barely earned a high school degree.
The elder Ovshinsky, who founded Energy Conversion Devices in Detroit in 1960, invented the nickel-metal-hydride battery that powers your cell phone and laptop computer; rewritable DVDs and CDs; hydrogen fuel cells, the flat screens used in modern TVs, modern solar cell technology and more. He was awarded more than 1,000 patents; fought the scientific establishment for recognition and won. World-famous scientists, from I.I. Rabi to Linus Pauling to Edward Teller, came to see him.
Nor was Harvey any slouch.
When he was just 17, he founded the Fifth Estate, one of the nation’s first and soon most famous counterculture newspapers, went on to help reinvent radio at WABX-FM later in the 1960s, and then became a renowned and award-winning producer of documentary films for several Detroit television stations, before writing his own screenplays and founding his own production company, HKO Media.
Yet, he wasn’t his father. “I wasn’t a genius. I didn’t want or need to be a genius. Stan was, and he was, frankly, a narcissist. I loved my father, but I did not worship him. I didn’t know how. He needed to be worshiped.”
Harvey’s relationship with his father is one of the themes in his fascinating memoir, Scratching the Surface (Wayne State University Press, 2021), though the book, well, merely scratched the surface.
For Stan Ovshinsky, his work, his creative genius, was everything. As his son noted, “he was extremely generous to me. His goal was to save the world.”
While he was an atheist, he took his Jewish identity seriously; his values had been molded by the left-wing culture of the members of the Workmen’s Circle group in his native Akron.
His ultimate hero was not Albert Einstein or Henry Ford, but Eugene V. Debs.
But Stan always put his own needs first. He met biologist Iris Miroy at a party when his own children were little, and left his wife and three young sons for her, apparently without much thought about what that would do to them. Harvey, who has been with his wife, Catherine Kurek Ovshinsky, since they met in their early 20s, was emotionally battered by what he calls “the seven years’ war” between his biological parents.
He came to prize stability and happy monogamy, but for years was haunted by the fear — no, conviction that he, too, would have the same thing happen to him.
“It took six years of therapy” to overcome that, he said. Over time, he learned how to have a healthy relationship with this complex man who he indeed deeply loved. “I learned in the course of writing the book that I was more like my father than I realized.”
But only up to a point.
“My father was a true believer. He needed to be adored. He needed to call the shots. He literally had no self-doubt.” When it came to scripting his life, “He was very good at it — but there was a price.
“Dad was a swashbuckler, a brilliant trailblazing adventurer who loved every minute of his charmed life. Unlike me, my father not only accepted but embraced the years of sacrifice and struggle.
“I was not willing to pay the price. I would say the difference between us is this. I would say, ‘every ship needs a harbor.’ Stan would say, ‘every ship needs an ocean.’”
But they loved each other. “You know, Father’s Day was one of his favorite holidays,” his son said. When the great inventor was dying of prostate cancer in 2012, Harvey helped organize a huge, pre-90th birthday tribute where everyone from respected scientists to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin spoke and congratulated him.
Harvey Ovshinsky did not cry when his father died on Oct. 17, 2012. But he did six years later, when he found a note in his father’s personal files that said, “I would fly anywhere to have seen and heard Harvey tonight. He not only has great talent but true depth and menschkeit.
“I am proud of him, not only as a son, but as a person. I am happy to have lived to have seen him with his wisdom and maturity.”
This Father’s Day, Harvey Ovshinsky looks forward to hearing from his own grown son Noah, and daughter Sasha.
And as always, he will spend some time thinking of his own enormously complicated and brilliant dad.