Periodically in the past year, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali would shoot off an email to Steve Jobs, the son he never met. They were simple notes: “Happy Birthday” or “I hope your health is improving.”
It’s unclear if Mr. Jobs ever wrote back. A person close to Mr. Jobs’s family said, no, he didn’t, while Mr. Jandali said he did receive two short replies.
The last one arrived six weeks before Mr. Jobs’s death, Mr. Jandali said, and said simply, “Thank you.”
For Mr. Jandali, aside from the iPhone 4 he carries, his story of the emails is pretty much all he has of a son who co-founded Apple Inc. and grew into one of the world’s most famous businessmen.
Mr. Jandali, 80 years old and general manager of the Boomtown casino in the barren hills outside Reno, Nev., presides over a staff of around 450 casino workers and is praised by his colleagues for his quiet leadership style and a marketing savvy. Walking the floor on Friday, he was stopped by an employee who thanked him for reinstalling $5 dollar slot machines. Mr. Jandali shook his hand, then sat down at the casino’s Chinese noodle joint to eat the salmon special, as he does many days.
“I can’t take credit for my children’s success,” said Mr. Jandali, who is also the father of the celebrated novelist Mona Simpson. Mr. Jobs was put up for adoption as a baby. Mr. Jandali said he had almost no contact with him and also has a strained relationship with Ms. Simpson.
Mr. Jandali’s close friends say the estrangement with his children has been a source of great sadness over the years. He kept the fact of his famous offspring private from even those closest to him for fear of being perceived as someone seeking to ride their coattails.
“To me it felt like his whole life this (estrangement) is something he regretted and he wished he made different decisions or wished there was a different result,” said Keith Henson, a general manager of L’Auberge Lake Charles, a casino in Louisiana. Mr. Henson said he found out only three years ago that Mr. Jandali had fathered Mr. Jobs even though Mr. Henson was mentored by Mr. Jandali at Boomtown and was the best man at his third wedding.
The recent decline in Mr. Jobs’s health attracted notice to Mr. Jandali, which he said he finds uncomfortable. Mr. Jandali agreed to be interviewed at the casino’s noodle restaurant, only after saying he didn’t think his story was interesting enough to warrant the attention.
With crinkled eyes and white hair surrounding a balding head, Mr. Jandali has a physical resemblance to Mr. Jobs. A side table in his office prominently features a framed publicity shot of Ms. Simpson that Mr. Jandali said he downloaded from the Internet.
He said he learned of Mr. Jobs’s death on Wednesday at the office, when a stranger called to offer condolences. He quickly hung up the phone.
“It was not a shock,” Mr. Jandali said. “Basically all you feel is sadness.”
Mr. Jandali only learned around 2005 that Mr. Jobs was his biological son. He doesn’t remember how he heard, but he said the news was “a major shock.”
Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’s sister
After that, Mr. Jandali began watching online videos of Mr. Jobs’s famous keynote speeches launching Apple products. He emailed a few times in the past year after becoming aware of Mr. Jobs’s failing health.
“I don’t know why I emailed,” Mr. Jandali said. “I guess because I felt bad when I heard about the health situation. He had his life and I had my life, and we were not in contact. If I talked to him, I don’t know what I would have said to him.”
After hearing of Mr. Jobs’s death Mr. Jandali called Ms. Simpson, who he said didn’t respond. He stared at pictures that were saturating news web sites online of Mr. Jobs in his 20s and 30s.
“That was exactly how I looked,” he said.
Mr. Jandali said he also read the speech last week that Mr. Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005 in which the Apple chief reflected on life and death and told the story of his adoption. “My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student … She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates,” Mr. Jobs said in the speech.
Mr. Jobs, who was born in San Francisco in 1955, said in the speech that in fact his birth mother finally agreed that he be adopted by Paul Jobs, a high-school dropout who became a machinist, and Clara Jobs, who never graduated from college. He grew up near San Francisco. While Mr. Jobs has acknowledged he had a relationship with his birth mother and sister, he didn’t publicly discuss Mr. Jandali.
People who know Mr. Jandali say he shares the intellectual capacity and instinct for understanding of consumer desires as his son, albeit in a different context. Yet unlike Mr. Jobs, a showman famous for wowing crowds with new products, Mr. Jandali prefers to remain in the background, he and others say.
“He’s a great influencer on those around him,” said Anthony Sanfilippo, chief executive of Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., which owns Boomtown. Mr. Sanfilippo promoted Mr. Jandali to general manager of the casino from head of hospitality around a year ago. “He is really the opposite of a showman because he would always put the light on others to take the stage. He understands what guests like and what they are willing to pay for.”
Mr. Jandali said he was never very technologically savvy. But he does consider himself an early adopter. His first and only computers have been Apple products—he has both a laptop and a desktop at home—and he purchased every iPhone model as soon as it came out, along with an iPad. He maintains Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“You have to use all the tools available to you,” he said. “It’s stupid not to.”
Mr. Jandali said he was born and raised in Syria’s third largest city, Homs, to a prominent family that owned villages and vast amounts of land outside the city, where workers tended wheat and cotton to enrich his family.
His father, he said, stressed education to his three sons, of which Mr. Jandali is the youngest. Mr. Jandali planned to become a diplomat in Syria. In 1952 came to the U.S., enrolling a year later to get his PhD in political science at the University of Wisconsin. His emphasis was on how Middle Eastern countries could emerge from colonialism. University records show he was awarded his doctorate in 1956 with a dissertation entitled “United Nations Efforts to Set Standards for National Independence.”
While a student in Madison, he became romantically involved with Joanne Schieble, a graduate student in speech therapy from Green Bay. Ms. Schieble, now known as Joanne Simpson, became pregnant in 1954 but her father didn’t approve of the relationship, Mr. Jandali said.
Ms. Simpson went to San Francisco for a few months to get away while she was pregnant. She eventually put her son, Mr. Jobs, up for adoption.
Ms. Simpson returned to Madison and soon after, her father died, enabling Ms. Simpson and Mr. Jandali to marry. After he graduated they moved to Syria but by then the government was in transition, disrupting his plans to become a diplomat. Instead, he said, he managed an oil refinery. Ms. Simpson was unhappy in Syria and moved back to Green Bay, he said, where she gave birth to their second child, Mona.
Mr. Jandali said he returned and began to teach at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There and later at other universities, he didn’t publish beyond a few articles in Arab-language newspapers. (The University of Wisconsin doesn’t have a record of Mr. Jandali being employed as professor but he might have taught classes, said John Coleman, the current chair of the political-science department.)
A few years later Mr. Jandali and Ms. Simpson divorced, and she later remarried. Mr. Jandali wasn’t involved in the younger Ms. Simpson’s life when she was growing up, according to both Mr. Jandali and a person close to the family. “He abandoned the family” and was “for the most part unreachable,” that person said.
As an adult, Mr. Jobs found and contacted Joanne Simpson and forged a relationship with her, as well as with Mona. Joanne Simpson couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mona Simpson in 1993 penned a novel, “The Lost Father,” about a protagonist searching for a father she never knew. Mr. Jandali read the book and recognized himself in the father character.
“The way I look at it, it’s her way of venting, and it’s OK,” Mr. Jandali said. “She’s entitled to that. It’s the price to pay for not being there for your child when you’re a father. Even though I don’t see her, I love her dearly.”
According to the University of Wisconsin, where he got his PhD, Mr. Jandali was affiliated with a number of universities around the country. Around 1968, he said, he taught in the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. However, his time there was brief and he left in 1970, according to university records. By that point he already owned a restaurant in Reno, where he would sometimes treat faculty members, recalled Joe Crowley, a former Reno colleague who went on to become president of the university.
He married a woman who worked in real estate and had grown children, Mr. Jandali said. He bought a bankrupt French restaurant in Reno and later sold it for a profit, he said, before joining a major casino in Las Vegas to run a restaurant. He became head of food and beverage in 1999 for Boomtown.
Not long after that, Boomtown and other Reno casinos faced the loss of out-of-town customers from California to Indian casinos closer to their homes. Turning to the locals as a source of income, Mr. Jandali in 2000 pushed the casino to introduce a lobster buffet—which drew thousands of customers on the weekends. “People thought I was crazy when I introduced that,” he said. “They thought we would lose money. But it attracted a lot of people.” Mr. Hansen, the former colleague, said the move was “one of the most successful promotions” for a casino in the region.
In 2006, widowed, Mr. Jandali remarried and now lives on a cul-de-sac in a gated Reno suburban community. He constantly reads books, usually on his iPad, he and others say, and he has outlined several fiction and nonfiction books that he hopes to finish writing if he retires.
But on Friday he was more focused on the casino’s affairs, including the next day’s “Super Spin Saturday” promotion, when casino-goers have the chance to win up to $400,000 by spinning a giant wheel.
Finishing lunch, he walked out of the Chinese restaurant, past tables printed with silhouettes of gun-slinging cowboys and by gamblers playing video poker machines. As he left, Mr. Jandali waved the iPhone in his hand. “They produce the best,” he said quietly. “Steve Jobs was a genius.”