In many ways, the story of Ed Zuckerberg is the story of a passion deferred—rechanneled and passed on.
Zuckerberg was raised on a tree-lined street in Flatbush, the son of a mail carrier and a homemaker. His family was the first on the block to own a color TV, and Ed would sit for hours on the living-room floor, watching the images flicker to life. Once he took apart a stereo to see how it worked. In high school, he excelled in math and science, and graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in biology in 1975.
“Growing up Jewish in New York City,” Zuckerberg tells me, “if you had half a brain, your parents wanted you to be a doctor or a dentist. I was actually a numbers guy. But back then, there really weren’t a lot of jobs in computer programming. There were these big, room-size computers that you read about—they worked on punch cards, some of them.” He laughs. “That was not the ‘appropriate use of my time,’ my parents would have said. It wasn’t for the smart boys.”
It was in the seventies, of course, that Bill Gates was dropping out of Harvard to found a software company and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were building circuit boards in a Los Altos garage. But Zuckerberg was a working-class kid from Brooklyn. He wanted stability—his parents did, anyway. And so, in 1975, he enrolled in New York University College of Dentistry.
While at NYU, Ed was set up on a blind date with Karen Kempner, a willowy Brooklyn College undergraduate. If Ed was intense and quiet, Karen was warm, with a thick Queens accent. In 1979, the pair married and relocated to an apartment in White Plains, not far from New York Medical College, where Karen was studying, with plans to go into psychiatry. A year later, they put a down payment on the Dobbs Ferry house.
For many years, Ed commuted daily between Brooklyn, where he kept an office, and Westchester, where his family was steadily growing: Randi arrived in 1982 and Mark in 1984. In 1987, the year his daughter Donna was born, contractors completed work on the renovation of the ground floor of the house, and Zuckerberg moved his practice full time to Dobbs Ferry. A committed diver, he decorated the new offices in an aquatic motif—there were murals of coral, and between two of the examination rooms, a 200-gallon fish tank.
Karen, now a licensed psychiatrist, was enlisted as his office manager—“my most overqualified employee,” Ed says. A few years later, Karen briefly attempted to return to psychiatry but returned home after a year. “She saw those people in the chair,” Ed recalls, “and she didn’t want her kids to turn out to be one of them.”
The family was always “tight-knit,” Donna Zuckerberg tells me—a kind of universe unto itself. The dental offices were separated from the living room by only a single door, and the children would often scamper around the waiting room and past the patients. Ed credits the proximity of all his dental gadgetry with influencing Arielle, who went on to study technology at Claremont McKenna College, and Mark.
“With us, our parents always supported what it was we wanted to do,” Donna says. “They just asked that we do our best at it.” And what they often wanted to do was play with machines. In the eighties, Mark and Randi scripted and filmed The Star Wars Sill-ogy, a live-action parody shot on handheld cameras. In the nineties, SimCity was big—“Mark would sit in front of the screen building these big skyscrapers,” Ed says—and so was Mario Kart. Mark was the family champion.
Which is not to say discipline was not important. But with Mark, the word “no required much more,” Ed told Time in 2010. “If you were going to say no to him, you had better be prepared with a strong argument backed by facts, experiences, logic, reasons. We envisioned him becoming a lawyer one day, with a near 100 percent success rate of convincing juries.”
In the mid-nineties, Mark, who had learned to code on the old Atari 800, built a messaging system that the family dubbed “Zucknet.” Ed employed it to relay messages between examination rooms. The kids, shut behind closed doors, logged on to send messages from one bedroom to the next. They could communicate digitally, in bursts of text, without ever actually saying a word.
Last year, Ed Zuckerberg was invited onto a local radio show hosted by Feiner, the town supervisor. Ed agreed, imagining it would be a laid-back affair. Within minutes, the lines were flooded: Everyone wanted to know how a mild-mannered dentist had managed to raise the founder of Facebook.