That Jungle Shirt Guy: Remembering Les Zoltan
It was a cold February evening when I got the call. Les, more than a longtime customer and colleague, had passed away due to complications from COVID-19 at 73. You see the numbers on the news, but it's all surreal until it touches you or someone you know. I was left reeling, literally crushed. This was man that I had done business with for more than 13 years. But when you do business with someone that long, he's not just a customer. He's a friend.
The last time I saw Les (his real name was Laszlo, but no one who knew him called him that) was at Streaming Media West in 2019, and of course he was dressed in one of his infamous loud jungle-style "Digital Video Extraordinaire" (DVEO) shirts. And while Les was brilliant—you wanted to pick his brain about technology for hours—I always found my eyes drifting to his shirt during conversions about the gear that he saw his clients needing and wanting. It was distracting and didn’t seem professional. At the very least, it was hard to take him seriously, especially in the early years. No matter what he was saying, I kept thinking, "There are parrots and monkeys on this guy’s shirt." But that was Les.
“What's with the shirts?," I finally asked. "Is it a theme?” "No," he replied. "They make people smile." For the headshot that went with his 2021 Industry Prediction, he wore a cowboy hat. Neither our editor Eric nor I were shocked, and we both had a chuckle about it. That was Les.
Les never had a bad word to say about anything or anyone. He loved the industry, touched so many people, and for me, was a personal inspiration. In a world based on performance, Les made a point to remind me that business needs to be fun, and that behind every encoder there are real people. I remember telling him about an agency that sent me an RFP and demanded that they have a response in 48 hours, over a holiday no less. "Why do you bother with that kind of business?," he asked. "They don’t care about you." He was right—of course they didn’t.
Every time I'd see Les setting up at our Streaming Media West show, he'd pull me over and give me a small gift. Nothing fancy, but always something personal. He knew I have a passion for the sea, and one show he gave me an oil painting of a sailing ship that he found while walking the streets of San Diego. It wasn’t a corporate gift with a logo, and he bought it on a whim. He didn’t buy it "to score points"—he saw it and he thought of me. Here was a guy who wasn't just a customer or a colleague. Here was a man who genuinely cared about people—a friend. I miss him.
The world needs more people like Les, and the world most certainly needs more jungle shirts.
Here's a video interview with Les at Streaming Media West 2019, a few months before the pandemic.
If you’d like to read Les’s obituary or send flowers, you can visit the San Diego Union Tribune.
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