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Steve Jobs’s Biological Father Allegedly Left Students Stranded in Egypt

In the 1970s, John Jandali led a group of college students to the Middle East—then purportedly disappeared with their money. Is that why the late Apple CEO refused to meet him?

By James Ross Gardner October 28, 2011

Perhaps the most unsatisfying moment in Steve Jobs, the new 630-page biography of the late Apple CEO, is an anecdote about Jobs refusing to meet his biological father. Adopted as an infant, Jobs had connected with his biological mother and sister but steered clear of his father, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali. “I didn’t trust him not to try to blackmail me,” Jobs told author Walter Isaacson. In an audio recording played during a recent 60 Minutes segment, Jobs expanded: “I learned a little bit about him and I didn’t like what I learned.”

Jobs never publicly revealed what he discovered. But if what happened at the University of Puget Sound is any indication, he may have had good reason to avoid the father-son reunion.

Jandali taught at the liberal arts college in Tacoma in the 1970s. David Smith, then an administrator in the college’s overseas department, remembers him as an impressive man who quickly shot up the academic ladder. Hired in 1969, Jandali became chair of both the political science department and the faculty senate within five years. Before that, the Syrian native had been a United Nations delegate and a PR rep for Iraq Petroleum Company.

“I was in my 30s and he was in his 40s,” recalls Smith, “but he even seemed older than that. Very mature. He had me over to dinner and he had a very grown-up apartment and I met his wife or girlfriend at the time.”

The balding, cherub-faced Syrian used to wheel around the streets of Tacoma in a giant automobile. “We were all liberals and didn’t drive American cars,” Smith says. “We drove little Hondas and Subarus. He drove a big Buick or something.”

Jandali spent the fall of 1974 organizing the overseas course “Egypt Since the 1952 Revolution,” to take place in Cairo during a short winter term of study. Eleven students signed up, paying at least $1,450 each in advance for travel and lodging, according to a Seattle Times article printed months later.

When the undergrads arrived in Egypt, however, the situation was nothing like Jandali had promised. “It was supposed to be political science—meet the leaders, talk to people in power,” recalls UPS graduate Russell Stenquist, a freshman on the tour who was joined on the trip by his father. “Instead it was ‘tour this mosque,’ and that’s it. So instead of being this unique thing from a guy who knew the region, it ended up being something tourists would do.”

The students saw little of Jandali the first few days, other than spotting him gambling in one of the city’s many casinos. (At the time Cairo was advertised as having some of the best gambling odds in the world.) Then the professor vanished.

“We tried to check out of the hotel,” recalls Stenquist, “but they wouldn’t let us check out because no one had paid the bill yet.” The hotel held their passports as collateral.

The students, along with Stenquist’s father and another faculty member, went to the police. Interpol was able to track Jandali to Cyprus, across the Mediterranean, but the trail went cold after that.

Stranded, the group phoned the university, which pleaded on their behalf to a U.S. Senator, who got the State Department to send money to Egypt, finally allowing the students to leave the country.

“Dr. John Jandali, a University of Puget Sound political-science professor who abandoned his student tour group in Cairo…has resigned from the university amid a storm of controversy,” The Seattle Times reported. “Several thousand dollars in student-paid travel and expense fees are unaccounted for…. He was last known to be in Las Vegas, the university said.”

Stenquist and his fellow students believed Jandali gambled away their money. But today no one at the private University of Puget Sound will go on record about why administrators never sought legal recourse. (Factoring inflation, the missing money, at least $15,950 total, would amount to approximately $64,000 today.)

“The study abroad trip was covered by insurance,” offers UPS spokesperson Shirley Skeel. “So we understand any necessary costs for airline tickets or interim expenses were covered.”

Jandali, today an 80-year-old CEO of the Boomtown Casino outside Reno, Nevada, has not returned phone calls about the matter.

David Smith, now a history professor at the university, was bound for Europe the same day Jandali was headed to the Middle East for the 1975 student trip, and they caught the same Pan Am flight out of Sea-Tac. “I sat next to him on the plane, and when we parted he said, ‘I’ll see you in three weeks,’” Smith recalls.

“But I never saw him again in my life.”

Discover more about John Jandali and the missing money in the December 2011 issue of Seattle Met, on newsstands Thursday, November 24 or click here.

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