Tuesday, February 28, 2023

My Friend Bill

It is a continuous marvel to me that in my life's journey from my youth in blue-collar Beltsville, I have worked closely with, or become close friends with, an amazing collection of exceptional people: two university presidents (Tom Day, San Diego State and Max Nikias, USC); two Internet Hall of Fame pioneers (Jon Postel and Paul Mockapetris, both from the Information Sciences Institute "ISI"); two Nobel Laureates (Jerry Edelman and Barry Sharpless, both from Scripps Research); one Top Gun Pilot/Instructor (Capt. Donald Kingery, USN Ret.); one Rogallo Kitty Hawk Hall of Fame pilot (Dave Kilbourn); the Smithsonian engineer who restored the 1903 Wright Flyer and the Enola Gay (Richard "Dennis" Horrigan); one Bonneville Land Speed Record holder (Lou Bingham); one multi-time NHRA Dragster Champion (Dan Schrokosch); and a world famous sculptor (Leopold Bernard).  I'm not sure how I got connected to all of these exceptional people, but I feel very fortunate that I did!

In this edition of my blog I want to tell you about another very exceptional friend -- William Costas Athas.  My closest friends know Bill as "Cary's Apple Computer Genius car-guy buddy". Until now I have kept Bill's identity anonymous to protect his privacy.  Bill is very private.


I first met Bill, a freshly minted PhD graduate of Caltech, in the early 1990's when we both worked at the Information Sciences Institute ("ISI") at the University of Southern California.  Bill's PhD advisor was the legendary Chuck Seitz who helped steer Bill's research interests toward Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) chip technologies -- a significant advancement in which "everything is on a single chip" rather than having separate chips for CPU, RAM, controllers,and such.  Here is a link that describes Bill's early research and his many publications:

Bill Athas Biography and Publications 

Bill was initially in Bob Parker's systems packaging group, then briefly in the Advanced Systems Division, and finally he worked for Peter Will. 

Bill came to my office one day, introduced himself, and told me that he had an idea for a patent -- I'm not sure exactly what words he used to describe his idea, but what my non-scientist brain thought it heard was he wanted to use the heat generated by the computer to generate electricity to drive the computer. I had no concept of what he was describing, but I helped him file his invention disclosure with the lawyers at USC.  

[Note: Inventing things and filing patents became a regular activity for Bill. During a dinner with Bill, Don, Shirley, and me in September 2022, we asked Bill how many patents he holds.  His reply was, "Just south of 100."  Here is a link to a partial list -- and you can see that many of them are evidenced in the features of Apple products.]

Patents by Inventor William C. Athas

A few days later I went to Bill's office to get his signature on the USC forms.  There was a big poster affixed to his office door:

I decided this guy is very cool and I need to get to know him better!  At this time Bill was a "Chevy Man" -- driving a Camaro.  He previously owned a red 1984 Corvette (just like me!).  In addition to our professional relationship, we forged a "car guy" friendship that lasted for the rest of our lives.

There is frequently a schism in academic research between science and "administration". At ISI I tried to bridge that situation by being accessible to the scientists. One thing helped a lot -- each year I would give a town hall type talk to the Institute.  ISI's cost accounting system was extremely complex and not well understood by the people who wrote grant proposals. During my talks I would review the past year's financial performance, describe the funding we had secured for the future, and explain the costing rates for the coming year.  Bill always attended these talks and referred to my slide on costing details as "the secret decoder ring of ISI finances". I'm told that a variation of those annual town hall meetings continues today under the leadership of Craig Knoblock.

It wasn't long before Nan and I received an invitation to Bill's wedding.  The wedding service was to be performed at the Wayfarer's Chapel in Palos Verdes.  I lived in Palos Verdes for 13 years and had driven by the chapel many times, stopping by on occasions to marvel at its beauty and its setting on the coastline of the peninsula.  I had never been inside the chapel.  

On Bill's wedding day, once Nan and I settled into our seats, we decided that this was an exceptional place to get married.


As the service began, the most beautiful woman, in an elegant wedding dress, appeared.  This was the first time we saw Rachelle.  

The reception was held at the Athenaeum at Caltech.  The joyous day, in two iconic settings, was the perfect beginning for a beautiful couple's life together.

By the end of the 1990's Bill had moved from ISI, first to the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, and then to Apple Computer in 2000.  But we stayed in touch even though Bill was living in San Jose and I was in San Diego.

After Bill joined Apple he graduated from Chevy to more exotic cars.  I think his favorite car of all time was his 2009 Porsche 911 Type 997.1 Turbo Coupe.  It was all-wheel drive, with the DOHC, twin turbo, fuel-injected engine putting out 473 BHP at 6,000 RPM.  Bill gave Nan and I a ride in the car on one of our trips to San Jose.  

Bill also let me drive his Audi R8 and his Acura NSX, cars I would have never had access to without his friendship.

Travels with Bill

Bill has joined Don, Shirley, Nan and me at Laguna Seca for many years for the IMSA races -- we would smuggle Bill into the Corvette Corral and he tolerated our passion for Corvettes.  

All the super-car sales guys are constantly tempting Bill to sample their wares, and Bill could frequently score better seats at Laguna Seca than we could.  Here is a photo of us at Laguna Seca in the Acura suite right above the start/finish line.

Bill has constantly invited me to exceptional car events.  

The coolest car event I ever attended was when Bill invited me to go with him to the Quail Lodge and Golf Club for their exotic, multi-day car show in 2019.  I had never seen so many $1+ million cars.  We went to parties, were treated to receptions, and rubbed elbows with the"One Percent".  I had to do a blog post about that experience.

The Quail Supercar Event

Bill's newest Porsche purchase garnered him a trip to the Porsche Experience center in Los Angeles in June 2022. Bill invited me to be his guest.  He flew in to Torrance the night before, I picked him up at his hotel the next morning and we drove over to the Porsche facility, first in line for the day. I'm happy that the Porsche people didn't have my Corvette Z06 towed from their parking lot.

During the day-long experience, Bill got to drive the best Porsche cars in all the driver training settings: straight away; track; skid pad; steep inclines; etc. 

In between sessions, Bill asked the ride-along expert about a glitch he was having with his nearly-new 2019 992 S.  The young driver made a few calls about Bill's issue to the Porsche geniuses, and then let Bill know that his known glitch could be repaired on a newer model car with a software download, but not on his three-year old car.  Bill said, "Really?".  I watched as the guy tried to explain to Bill the complexities of computer architecture.  I thought, "Does this guy have any idea who he is talking to?".  Bill never said another word about the encounter -- displaying his forgiving nature. 

In 2015 Nan and I went to Yosemite, staying at the Ahwahnee Lodge for a peaceful getaway.  Bill and his family joined us for a very nice visit, including some memorable hikes in Yosemite Valley.

In 2016 we had a nice rendezvous with Bill and his family in Disneyland.  

Events that failed to materialize

There were three times that Bill and I had planned an adventure that failed to materialize. 

In 2016 Ford announced the rebirth of the Ford GT.  But you couldn't just buy one of these $450,000 cars, you needed to fill out an application to buy one -- and the people in the PR department of Ford would decide if you were worthy (or not).  Car and Driver magazine posted the application form for all to see:

Ford GT Application

Bill called me as he was filling out the form.  He let the good people at Ford know that if they allowed him to buy a Ford GT, he (and I) would take a grand tour of the USA in the car, and then he would donate the car to charity.  What a road trip that would be!  What a philanthropic gesture!

In July 2016 Bill received a not-quite-satisfying reply from the Ford GT Team declining his application!

Undeterred by the Ford GT rebuff, Bill arranged in 2019 to order a Porsche 992 S including factory delivery in Leipzig, Germany.  This time, instead of a grand tour of the USA, we would take a road trip of Europe.  The itinerary, scheduled to start in April 2019, included stops in Lund and Gothenburg, Sweden, Hamburg, Germany, dropping the car off for shipping to San Jose, then a trip to London and finally the flight back home.  Bill and Nan made all the flight and hotel arrangements.  This was going to be amazing!

Then COVID hit.  Despite negotiations that went on for months, the Porsche factory cancelled our visit and the car was eventually shipped to the USA without a proper road-trip break in.  We were both very disappointed. 

Last year, while vacationing at the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise, Nan and I were waiting to be seated for dinner when my phone alerted me that Bill was calling.  The Lamborghini boys were offering to host Bill for a special event, and he could bring a guest.  Bill chose me!  Unfortunately, Nan and I had already booked a cruise that precluded my opportunity to sample a Lambo.  Another disappointment.

Quiet Kindnesses

Bill is skimpy with words, but effusive with kindness.  Through the years, at completely random times, gifts would arrive from Bill.  Examples are: A tee shirt that says "Life is too short to drive boring cars" with images of three classic Corvettes; another tee shirt poking fun at Steve Jobs, saying "This is our best T shirt ever!"; a copy of the 450 page book "Designed in California by Apple" -- a fantastic pictorial history of Apple and its many products; a classic poster from the 1960's showing a Corvette Stingray sales brochure taken at LAX; and countless Apple products.

Five years ago, we invited Bill to my 70th birthday party.  Bill told us he would attend even though he would need to fly down from San Jose. On the day of the party, Bill arrived as expected.  But we learned that he had another commitment that he had to meet, but he still dropped by to celebrate the event.  He was only able to visit for about 15 minutes. A more dedicated friend could not be found.

The Ron Fellows Performance Driving School

We have been trying (in vain, I'm afraid) to convert Bill to come back to the "Corvette side".  Bill has joined Don, Shirley, Nan and me at the Ron Fellows Corvette school three times -- 2016, 2017 and 2022.

In 2016 Don, who had been to the school before, was in the "advanced" class while Bill and I were in the "regular" class.

We returned in 2017 and Bill and I got promoted to the "advanced" class, but Don was in the "expert" class!  Both times we were all driving the C7 Corvette.

Then in 2022, after Don had purchased his new C8 Corvette, he decided to return to Spring Mountain. He registered for the class that was scheduled for September 11 and 12.  Bill registered for the same "advanced" class.  

Bill and I had been invited to a fabulous gala in Los Angeles on September 11  -- the 50th Anniversary of ISI's founding in 1972. He decided that he would rather drive fast cars with Don.  Nan and I decided that we could go to the gala on Sunday night, then drive to the Corvette School on Monday morning to meet up with Bill, Don, and Shirley.  Even though we missed Day 1 of the class, we arrived in time for dinner.  

At dinner we celebrated Don's birthday -- Bill gave Don a special USAF coffee mug (to tease Don who was a Navy pilot).  But it was a thoughtful gift, like all of Bill's gifts.  Nan and I gave Bill a coffee mug too -- the ISI 50th anniversary mug.

On Day 2 Shirley, Nan and I watched Don and Bill alternating between time on the track and in the classroom for debriefing and more instruction.  On the afternoon of Day 2, Bill told me that he wasn't feeling well.  He left early and returned to San Jose.

After we all returned home, we kept checking in on Bill to see how he was doing.  In September he confirmed that he had contracted COVID on the trip to Nevada (Don caught it too -- probably in the classroom). In early October Bill told us he was doing better but was carrying a full workload. 

We didn't hear from Bill for the rest of October despite sending messages and inquiries about his health.  Then in early November Bill told us that his health had taken ". . . a sudden and serious turn for the worse . . . a massive vertigo attack . . . terrible tinnitus".  In late November we talked with Bill by phone about his health, and he was still struggling.  The last text message we received from Bill was December 11th.  After that date, Bill never responded to our messages to him.

Rachelle called us in early January to let us know of Bill's passing. We could not have been more shocked or devastated.

Bill's memorial service was held at his local church on Saturday, January 28th -- one month ago. The St. Francis Episcopal Church was standing room only, packed with friends, neighbors, church members, and, of course, scores of Apple people.  The eulogy was delivered by Johny Srouji, Senior Vice President, hardware technologies, Apple Computer -- Bill's boss. Johny delivered a beautiful eulogy, describing Bill's professional, and personal life.  He used the word "exceptional" a few times to describe Bill and his accomplishments -- which is why I have chosen that word many times in this tribute. The same intelligent, quiet, humble, kind, and caring person that we have known in our small circle of friends is the same man that his professional colleagues knew and loved.

Johny respected the secrecy of the technologies that Bill was working on in his eulogy.  In trying to learn more about Bill since his passing, I came across the article below.  In it, we learn that Apple's most secretive team is called the Exploratory Design Group, or XDG, and that for many years Bill was its leader. Bill was one of the few people earning the title of  "Apple Engineering Fellow".  

My favorite quote from the article is, "Athas was seen by the late co-founder, Steve Jobs and current Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook as one of the brightest engineering minds of the company." 

Bill Athas and the Apple Experimental Design Group

Like so many others, we are dealing with an emptiness borne of sudden, permanent, loss.  Our only comfort is that for so many years Bill chose to include us in his exceptional life -- and it was the best road trip ever.

Cary Thomas

February 28, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful words Cary. We should all be so fortunate to have a friend like Bill, and Bill was equally fortunate to have your lifelong friendship.