The Semiconductor Industry Has Lost a Hero

The Semiconductor Industry Has Lost a Hero

By Jonathan Davis, president, Semiconductor Business, SEMI

I was stunned and saddened at the news of Steve Appleton’s untimely passing.  Word spread quickly of his tragic accident, and many recounted their experiences with the charismatic leader of Micron Technology, the last U.S. DRAM maker.

Many that worked with him can tell of his huge presence, character and influence. I cannot say that I knew him well.  I only had a few direct encounters with him over the years.  But, they were memorable.  And even then, long before his iconic legend was finally etched in semiconductor history by tragic accident, several of us here at SEMI knew from brief contact — that we had been in the presence of a giant — a hero.

Steve was a friend of SEMI.  He served as an occasional speaker at SEMI events.  As the dynamic and energetic Micron chief, his qualities epitomized the warrior spirit of the U.S. memory chip maker.  Who else could have been so convincing and effective as a leader in the epic (and I might say, ongoing) clash of titans in the hyper-competitive memory chip business.

We might take comfort in his own words to the effect that he would rather pass having lived life to its fullest than anything less. Yet, it would be inappropriate to minimize the heartbreaking loss that must be felt by his family, friends and colleagues by simply concluding that he died as lived — with excitement, passion and fierce competitiveness.  While, those are surely true and proven facts, I cannot imagine that they diminish the bereavement of those that loved him most.  To them, we send our deepest sympathies.

As I try to take in this tragedy, I think of the couple passing moments in which Steve Appleton touched my life.

I vividly remember the SEMICON West over seven years ago, when we introduced a new format of visionary keynotes to be held in the Moscone Center Esplanade Hall.  All were excited that Steve Appleton agreed to be the keynoter.  Then, with days to go, we were horrified to hear that his jet plane crashed while filming a sequence to be used in his SEMICON presentation.

We were confused and desperate to learn of his fate.  We were uncertain of how to respond with precious little time before the big exposition and conference.  Though offered free of charge, we required registration for the keynote.  The event was oversubscribed several times over.  In addition to our concerns for Mr. Appleton — we had the makings of an event crisis.

He had been hospitalized, with broken bones, battered organs and a laceration to his head.  I hate to admit it, but we began to attack the rolodex to determine who we could get on very late notice to fill the high-visibility keynote spot.

Then, a call from the Micron folks — just confirming Mr. Appleton’s hotel and inquiring if it would be an inconvenience to arrange transportation for the short couple block distance from the hotel to the conference hall.

“What?!  Really?  He’s coming?”

“Yes.”

“But… wasn’t he in the hospital?”

“Yes. At the moment.”

“But… We heard it was a terrible accident. Isn’t he badly injured?”

“Yes.”

“But, can he sustain the rigors of travel and the speaking engagement?”

“Steve likes to keep his commitments.”

And sure enough, Steve and the Micron communications person arrived as planned at the San Francisco Marriott hotel on the appointed morning.  He approached with a stiffness and slow mechanical movement suggestive of a struggling robot.  A large bruise shadowed his forehead.  While obviously belabored in movement, his energy beamed.  His enthusiasm was unrestrained.

I realized just how much pain he was in as he winced and strained to enter the limousine.  It actually took a few tries to get a path of entry that he could manage.  It was then that I realized that underneath his shirt and jacket he was bound in a rigid plastic brace the length of his torso.

We got there early and killed time in the green room for an hour before his talk. We traded stories about motorcycle riding and other thrill-seeking pursuits. He was cool.  He was so kind, accessible and humble. Once show time came, he slowly mounted the stage to thunderous ovation. On that day, my understanding of the concepts of leadership, commitment and dedication were all dramatically recalibrated.

In 2006, he returned to again keynote SEMICON West and, a couple years later agreed to speak at the SEMI International Trade Partners Conference (ITPC) — our premier executive conference.  At the ITPC conference break before he was to speak, he produced a Flip video and asked some of us to make impromptu comments.  He then instantly imbedded the quirky clips in his subsequent presentation to demonstrate the potential of an inexpensive simple consumer video camera with a simple interface. He had fun with us and involved us to show the human side of the technology that he was championing.

Recently, Steve was slated to keynote the upcoming 2012 edition of the ITPC.   Just last week, he was communicating with SEMI programs manager Marite Pantangco on the schedule and arrangements.  He communicated openly with a PR manager (me several years ago) and a program manager.  He was just that kind of person.  I’m sure he had a healthy ego.  But he interacted with ordinary people with impressive grace and dignity.

Those are some of my impressions of a hero.  I know that others at SEMI and many of you can amplify those a hundred fold.

His passing leaves a huge hole in the industry.

I guess I just want to say — to those that loved him — I am so sorry for your loss.  And to those of us left to carry on in this challenging semiconductor industry: a hero has fallen, a void has been created.

In an industry replete with iconic figures, Steve Appleton occupies a distinct and permanent place.  He’s the real deal. They don’t get much better.  And it’s all the more reason to take the passion and dedication that he so perfectly exemplified — pick it up and carry on.  Let’s take some of the gift that Steve gave us — try to live up to it… better it — and keep moving as if we had just a few precious moments to make a difference. 

From what I could tell, he’d want that.

February 6, 2012