A Fifty-Year Friendship That Began at Cal Poly
When students enroll at Cal Poly, many are hoping that their time here will jump-start their careers. Others hope to form deep and lasting bonds of friendships during their time on campus. Rich Murray (Electronic Engineering, ‘79) and Kirk Branner (Computer Science, ‘79) were lucky enough to do both things together. The two have been close friends for nearly 50 years, and their friendship started during their very first days on campus in the fall of 1975.
Murray is from El Centro, a border town in Southern California south of Palm Springs, while Branner grew up in Palo Alto in Northern California. They met in their WOW group during their first week at school, and as it turned out, their dorm rooms were just a couple doors down from each other in Fremont Hall.
”Once we bonded as friends that freshman year, we decided that if we could, we would want to continue rooming together and go from there,” Murray explained.
The next year, they roomed together in Tenaya Hall and continued living together when they moved off campus for their junior and senior years.
They both have fond memories from their student days. “We did a lot of fun stuff together," remembered Branner. “Sometimes we would go ice-block sliding. We would take large blocks of ice and wrap the top part with towels, and then slide down the small hills near the dorms.”
Real friendships, they're hard. It’s not easy. We’ve been there for each other through the good times and the bad times. Those friendships, they take work, but it’s worth doing.
Electronic Engineering, ‘79
They also cheered each other on through their extracurricular activities, with Murray running hurdles on the Track and Field team and Branner playing ping pong.
“We would study together and do our own thing,” explained Murray. “But then if I had a track meet, Kirk would be there. And when he went to state championships in ping pong, I was there for him.”
After graduating in 1979, they both received multiple job offers and ended up going their separate ways, with Branner moving to Colorado to start a job with Bell Labs, and Murray moving to San Diego to work for Hewlett-Packard. They stayed in touch though, as they always wanted to work on something together professionally.
“We both envisioned starting a company together which later became Encad,” explained Branner.
In 1981 they left their steady jobs and took a chance to become the co-founders of Encad Inc., a computer startup with two others in San Diego. At Encad, they became the co-inventors of the world’s first wide-format color ink-jet printer, which can still be found in places like CVS or FedEx office stores today.
Murray explained, “We didn’t have a lot of financial responsibilities, so we dropped our great jobs and worked out of a house in San Diego. We did the startup thing, and we raised a bunch of money. Then we floundered for 10 years trying to get it right; sometimes getting paid, sometimes not. Finally, we had a major product success and our company grew from 15 employees to 500 in about three years.”
Encad went public in 1991 and went on to become a $500M company that was listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. For 20 years the two worked side by side running engineering for the company until it was acquired by the Eastman Kodak Company in 2000.
After the Kodak acquisition, they left to start several other small companies, one of which invented a mobile camera for cell phones that was the first to demonstrate that a wireless device could capture an image and email it over a cellular network.
After decades of working together, Murray retired from the industry in 2015 and moved back to San Luis Obispo to be closer to family. Feeling restless, he soon began teaching classes part-time at Cal Poly in the College of Engineering. But leaving Branner in San Diego was not an easy decision.
“Moving out of San Diego was the first time we hadn’t actually been together and doing stuff on a regular basis in 30 years,” explained Murray. “It was one of the hardest decisions for me to make because he’s family, he’s not just a friend.”
Even with the move, the two have found a way to stay connected through their work. Murray now teaches the Computer Engineering Capstone Project course, a two-quarter, faculty-lead team project course, and Branner, who now works for Rain Bird, has become a key client for several of Murray's student groups, leading them on real-world industry projects.
Branner is happy to be connected to Cal Poly students again.
“I believe that it is crucial for schools, such as Cal Poly, to rely on industry professionals to introduce students to collaborative projects and problem-solving scenarios that closely resemble those encountered in the actual workforce,” he explained. “I absolutely believe in the Learn by Doing approach. Cal Poly was at the forefront in the late 1970’s but now with the Capstone classes it seems to have reached another level.”
For Murray, being back at Cal Poly on the other side of the classroom took some getting used to.
“My very first class that I taught was in the spider building — the old science building — and it was in a classroom where I took my first chemistry class in,” he explained. “I thought, ‘This is so weird. I should be sitting in a seat but now I’m down in front.’ It was really odd.”
In addition to their professional lives, Branner and Murray remained close in their personal lives as well. Branner was the best man in Murray’s wedding in 1979 to his wife Katy, whom Murray met in a physics class at Cal Poly. Murray was the best man in Branner's wedding to his wife Rose in 1982. Their families lived near each other in San Diego and are very close, with their children growing up together. They would tailgate at Charger’s football games and go skiing together at Kirkwood near Lake Tahoe.
After almost 50 years, both Branner and Murray recognize that their friendship is a unique and special relationship. Friends and family often joke that they sometimes finish each other's sentences since they’ve known each other longer than they’ve known both of their spouses. They both also recognize that any relationship worth having requires a certain level of commitment and effort, through all of life’s ups and downs.
“Real friendships, they're hard,” Murray said. “It’s not easy. We’ve been there for each other through the good times and the bad times. Those friendships, they take work, but it’s worth doing.”
“Rich is my brother from another mother,” reflected Branner. "I would say our friendship is beyond friends. It’s more like family.”