Samuel Urcis showed his science acumen at age ten, when he diagnosed his father’s friend’s flesh wound by viewing skin cells under a microscope. In Cuba, where his Jewish father and mother had fled from the just turned Communist Soviet Union, Sam skipped several grades while his parents waited three decades to get a visa to the U.S.
In 1951, a winning lottery ticket allowed the family to finally immigrate to California. Then sixteen, Sam’s dreams of being a neurosurgeon were dashed, being unable to afford eight more years of school. But with a lifelong resilience, Sam quickly switched his focus to mechanical engineering, with its emphasis on math, accommodating his then limited English. Washing test tubes at night at Children’s Hospital and doing a stint as a movie extra on weekends, Sam put himself through college, graduating from UCLA as editor of the Engineering School newspaper.
The space program had just begun and Sam jumped right in, becoming a project manager just two weeks after beginning employment at Ryan Aerolab. He oversaw an unmanned missile project built for NASA, the first launched from the Pacific Coast and containing the first living organisms ever sent so far into space by the United States. Its success led to many other management posts, including at Hughes Aircraft and Rockwell International. During these years Sam developed a taste for fine wine and good food, becoming quite knowledgeable about buying wine futures. He always generously shared his bottles with friends
In 1972, Sam conceived the idea of transferring some of the new space technology he was involved in to oil exploration. He co-founded Geosource, an oil services and equipment company, which became a Fortune 500 company eight years later. Sam’s management style, to lead by example, was subtle but effective – when he wanted the other executives under him to curtail their high travel costs, he merely booked himself into a coach seat on a flight where they were flying first class. He was seen by them and the result was exactly what he’d hoped for.
Years of non-stop international travel negotiating deals and overseeing operations made Sam yearn for a quieter time and place. When the CEO of Geosource, Patrick Loughnane, died and Sam was asked to step into his shoes, he opted instead to leave the industry and retire to Carmel, California, where he’d honeymooned with his first wife. There, Sam became friends with Wally Davis, one of the founders of Silicon Valley. Together, they formed a new venture capital firm.
Alpha Partners began in 1982 with two other executives joining them shortly thereafter. The focus of the firm was seed financing for start-up companies. Alpha Partners eventually provided seed and later-stage financing for more than 45 technology companies. During several years in venture capital, Sam also served as a trustee of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
After all the general partners retired from Alpha, Sam partnered with Castle Harlan, Inc., an original investor in Geosource, to consult in the energy sector. Despite all these accomplishments, Sam is remembered mostly for his sweet nature and humble disposition. His thoughtfulness and generosity touched everyone in his life. “He never said a bad word about anyone” his good friend Ben remembers. Eventually, Sam retired, enjoying a life of travel, the arts and philanthropy with his second wife, Marion Zola, a writer. They split their time between Carmel and Beverly Hills, where Sam died from Parkinson’s’ at home November 11th with his wife and dog by his side. He is survived by his brother, Ruben, his two sisters, Julie and Berta, and numerous nephews and nieces.
Remembering Samuel Urcis
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