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Meet Dick Levy, Varian Medical Systems

Dick Levy2010 Packard Award Recipient and Board Chair, Varian Medical Systems

By Duffy Jennings, Valley Vision Editor

For a Cincinnati native and lifelong Reds fan who once struck out against Pete Rose in a sandlot baseball game more than a half century ago, you might say Dick Levy has recovered admirably from that ignominious whiff.

Honored by Joint Venture with the 2010 David Packard Award for civic engagement, Levy today chairs the board of directors of Varian Medical Systems, a company to which he has devoted most of his professional career for more than forty years.

He also has chaired the board of United Way in Silicon Valley and Joint Venture’s Smart Health initiative. He is an internationally recognized health care expert, an accomplished nuclear chemist, a vibrant and dedicated community leader, an avid outdoorsman and traveler, a passionate baseball fan, and a devoted husband, father and grandfather.

Beyond his distinguished career, Levy somehow found a way to step outside his Varian role and make a significant difference in the broader community, working behind the scenes, between the lines, around the edges. He has done it quietly some of the time, and sometimes he’s done it with a bullhorn because he needed to mobilize people and resources and become a powerful change agent.

“Dick represents the very best of Silicon Valley management,” said his longtime Varian colleague and friend Bill Hyatt. “He has a people focus that’s very unusual. In addition to his exceptional business mind, he has a way of being committed to people that makes them feel committed to him.

Hyatt, who worked at Varian sales from 1970 to 1979 and again from 1998 until he retired as vice president of Brachytherapy in 2008, said Levy “always asks people about their families and remembers birthdays, that kind of thing. Doctors and others in the international medical community treated him with a great deal of respect, not as an industry guy or manufacturer, but as an equal.”

“Dick represents the very best of Silicon Valley management. He has a people focus that’s very unusual. In addition to his exceptional business mind, he has a way of being committed to people that makes them feel committed to him.” – Varian colleague Bill Hyatt

Richard M. Levy and his younger sister, Carol, were born into a middle class Midwestern family, the children of Sidney and Jane Levy. Their father owned the Clifton Shirt Company, which provided uniforms to police, fire fighters, postal workers and other public employees.

Frequent trips to Crosley Field with his father nurtured Dick’s love for baseball and his beloved Cincinnati Reds. Back then, the city so treasured its baseball team that it closed the schools on Opening Day. As a teen, Dick played little league ball against the likes of Rose and Claude Osteen, then in later years cheered them from the stands.

When it came time to graduate from Walnut Hills High School, a future with the shirt company held little appeal for him, and Levy’s father encouraged him to expand his world beyond Ohio by going away to college.

“I was very wide-eyed and frightened,” Levy recalls about his arrival at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “I felt like such an outsider. I had no idea what I wanted to study, but I had taken chemistry in high school and done alright with it, so I took Chemistry 1A at Dartmouth and found it easier than high school.”

Four years later, Levy earned his undergraduate degree in nuclear chemistry and set his sights on graduate school at UC Berkeley at the suggestion of a faculty advisor.
While spending that summer in New Hampshire to work in construction, he met Susie Lewis, a University of Vermont sophomore who would become the love of his life. She later transferred to Berkeley to join him while he completed his doctorate. Then on December 5, 1964, in the midst of a severe winter ice storm in Vermont, Dick and Susie were married.

Levy took his first post-doctorate job as a researcher with Monsanto in St. Louis. The newlyweds lived in a small apartment with a mutt they named Fang. Susie taught grade school and in their free time, they explored the outdoors – canoeing, spelunking, skiing, hiking, backpacking and mountaineering.

One trek took Levy to the summit of 14,000-foot Gray’s Peak in Colorado, inspiring the name of their first son, Gray, in 1968. Two years later, they welcomed a second son, Carl. Today, Gray coaches high school football in Reno and has a daughter, 16. Carl is a successful standup comedian, better known as “Cash” Levy.

Back in St. Louis, Dick also took business courses from Alexander Hamilton University, and in 1968 he took a new job as a Midwest sales manager for a small California-based electronic technology company called Varian Associates. Two years later the company summoned him to California.

Over the next two decades, Levy helped lead the growth of Varian into one of the top medical services and instruments corporations in the world. He rose quickly through roles in sales, marketing, service, research and development, and corporate quality management to become senior vice president in 1989.

“Dick was one of the founding donors for 2-1-1 in Santa Clara County. Without his extraordinary generosity, 2-1-1 might not have gotten off the ground here. Since it already serves many thousands of people each year seeking access to local services, he has touched an untold number of lives.” – United Way Silicon Valley CEO Carole Leigh Hutton.

The company ultimately spun off its semiconductor and instruments businesses, and today Varian medical systems is a $2.5 billion provider of cancer treatment devices and other products that deliver care to more than one million patients per year.

Beyond Varian, Levy has long devoted his time and resources to a wide variety of community efforts and organizations.
As chair of Joint Venture’s Smart Health Initiative, Levy led the effort for the widespread adoption of electronic health records and other technologies to advance medical care in the region. He did so by recruiting a task force that ultimately included all the health care providers in the region, the insurers, and a large number of tech companies.

Perhaps his most treasured work has been with United Way Silicon Valley. He has been on the board of UWSV since 2002, and served as its chair in 2008-2009. United way CEO Carole Leigh Hutton says Levy’s passion for improving lives makes him a remarkable leader.

“Dick was one of the founding donors for 2-1-1 in Santa Clara County,” Hutton said. “Without his extraordinary generosity, 2-1-1 might not have gotten off the ground here. Since it already serves many thousands of people each year seeking access to local services, he has touched an untold number of lives.”

She said Levy also led a significant move into public policy advocacy, a new direction for the organization. With Levy’s direction, UWSV took its first public positions on ballot measures that had the potential to affect greatly the community and its key stakeholders. One was support for Measure A, the funding to do seismic retrofitting of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. The other was Proposal 1D, to protect First 5 funding and its critical services to children in the very early stages of their lives.

Levy is on the board of the Peninsula Coastal Region of Sutter Health, secretary of the Sutter Health board and a past board chair of the American Electronics Association. He is co-chair of the Advisory Committee of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and is an active participant in summits for CCI (Center for Corporate Innovation), with a focus on improvement of the national health care system.

Baseball remains an important pastime. He coached both of his sons in Little League and still umpires Palo Alto youth baseball games. He goes to Giants games frequently and for his 50th birthday in 1988, he celebrated with a week at the San Francisco Giants fantasy camp.

It was there that he got the chance to redeem himself, in a roundabout way, for that childhood strikeout by Pete Rose. Dick was playing second base when the legendary Bobby Thomson came to the plate. It was Thomson’s celebrated walk off home run that propelled the 1954 Giants to the National League pennant in 1954.

With an even bigger legend – Willie Mays – taking his lead at first base, Thomson swung mightily, but this time there was no “shot heard round the world.” He grounded to Levy, who started a 4-6-3 double play that forced Mays at second and doubled up Thomson at first.

Even David Packard would have enjoyed that.