The story was the lead story on page 1B of the San Jose Mercury News on Saturday June 28, 1997. The original can be found at

Grief on the Net

Web site spreads news of couple's fatal crash

Published: June 27, 1997

Mercury News Staff Writer

Darin May had just connected Netscape's office in Milan, Italy, with the rest of the world June 20 when he read the news online:

Some 75 miles away in the Asti Province town of Canelli, Phil Karlton, a 50-year-old Netscape colleague, his 58-year-old wife, Jan, and a friend had been killed when a truck loaded with dirt and rock slammed into their car.

Within hours back in California, a Web site offered a mailing list, so friends could learn and remember and mourn. By Saturday, the site had recorded 2,000 hits from 1,000 different addresses. Within days, scores had posted anecdotes about how Phil and Jan Karlton had charmed their lives.

It was a lesson in communication. ``At the usual memorial and funeral, you can talk to a few people,'' said Nancy Teater, a friend of the Karltons' for 25 years. ``In this environment, everyone can share. And sometimes when you write things down, you can say what you can't say out loud.''

In Italy on Saturday, as the Karltons' son, David, also a Netscape employee, and Phil's sister Joanne arrived to struggle with the questions, the logistics and the arrangements, Darin May was experiencing his own tale, which he posted Sunday on the mailing list of Web site

``Two candles were lit in the Duomo Cathedral in Milan for Phil and Jan -- I don't think the Karltons are religious, neither am I, but time stood still for a few minutes Saturday afternoon as I started to grieve. . . .

``Thanks for the list -- I don't feel alone over here anymore.''

Some might say that's the connectivity of the Internet; others might say it's just the long reach of a man who helped co-workers learn how to play hard and to work happy and a woman who comforted everyone she met.

For 28 years, the Karltons were a couple admired and envied for their companionship in the East, and in the West -- when Phil Karlton studied at the University of California-Santa Barbara and Carnegie Mellon University, worked for Xerox at Palo Alto Research Center, for Digital Equipment Corp. at its Western Research Lab, for Silicon Graphics, for Netscape.

He drew praise for his contributions to numerous computer programming development teams, among them X Windows, which made the text-based Unix operating system easier and more graphics-oriented, and more recently a protocol for security on the Internet. His colleagues describe him as a brilliant and provocative mentor, an excellent manager who didn't need the job to validate his abilities.

Jan Karlton used her degree with honors from the Maryland Institute of Art to develop an often-exhibited art career in the Santa Clara Valley.

Together they reared ``The Kid,'' David, who earned a degree in biology from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont and became a Java programmer for Netscape. That meant father could embarrass son, announces Phil Karlton, who identifies himself as Netscape's Principal Curmudgeon on his home page. It links to the home page of David Karlton, who admits he sometimes ``teases pops.''

The gregarious humor of Phil Karlton and the quiet wit of Jan Karlton worked in concert, their friends said. They took in lost Silicon Valley souls far from home for a meal at Thanksgiving or other holidays; they entertained not only as hosts but as the king and queen of costumed party guests.

Thursday at the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in Palo Alto, a regular crew, and more, gathered for a weekly lunch tradition that beer-lover Phil Karlton had started eight years ago.

``It will be hard,'' longtime friend Richard Johnsson told the Web site mailing list, ``but we will get through it and go back to searching for that joy in life that Phil and Jan always had. It will be hard, but we will continue meeting on Thursdays for lunch without Phil.''

The long love affair between Janice Marie Berthiaume and Philip Lewis Karlton had begun just three dates before a judge married them in downtown New York City on Aug. 14, 1968.

Lorene Berthiaume, the sister of the bride, was the witness. She also paid the judge, because the bridegroom forgot his wallet. And she paid for the cab fare back to Greenwich Village so the three could celebrate with lox and bagels and champagne.

The bridegroom decided on a ring from Tiffany's before he learned that a friend of a friend knew someone who could get one cheaper. It had a bigger stone, a better stone.

Jan Karlton wore that diamond for 28 years before the dump truck slammed into the Saab at a curving intersection, killing her and her longtime friend, the driver Rosemarie Bröcking of Bex, Switzerland, outright, and Phil Karlton seven hours later in an Alessandria hospital.

The intersection had been the site of death and destruction before. The people of Canelli had pleaded for changes for more than two years, the mayor of Canelli said after the crash. When David Karlton and his Aunt Joanne went back to buy a tough little white-flowered Marguerite to plant as a memorial at the intersection, the nearby florist refused to let them pay. Everyone in Canelli knew what had happened, they said. As cars slowed, genuflections told of their sadness.

A judge gave David Karlton permission to search the wreckage of the Saab and the truck. His parents' camera had been missing from their effects, and so was the diamond from Jan's ring. He found the camera, but broken shards of glass inside the Saab sparkled like a thousand zirconium fakes. Finally he turned to the cab of the truck for a futile look.

Before leaving the wreckage yard, he made one more pass at the Saab. ``There was one point on the floor where the sunlight was shining differently,'' David Karlton said. ``It's amazing. I found it.''

Sidebar: Death notices

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