When 41-year-old Dewey Winburne committed suicide in February 1999, so many people showed up to say good-bye at St. David’s Episcopal Church in downtown Austin that more than a few were left standing outside the door. St. David’s was where Dewey worshiped; he was a lay reader, a Sunday school teacher, and the ringleader of a tight-knit group that attended the Sunday night musical service. But on this day the regulars were easily outnumbered by the computer programmers, the software developers, and other creative types associated with the hundreds of start-up companies that have materialized in the past few years. Even George Kozmetsky, the octogenarian high-tech guru known to one and all as Dr. K, was there. He knew Dewey too. They all knew Dewey, because Dewey knew everyone.
More than once he’d been described as the godfather of Austin multimedia. It was an exaggeration, though he did predict the city’s new media explosion by co-founding the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, the seven-year-old spin-off of the annual music industry schmoozefest. Schmoozing was what Dewey was about: He was Mr. Network, the one to call to make the hookup no matter what you needed. A regular around the offices of the Austin Chronicle , where he mixed easily with grass-roots activists and scenesters, he was one of the few bridges between the old counterculture and the new corporate culture, as fluent in hippie and street jive as he was in Adobe Premier. That made his passing seem symbolically significant, the final chapter in Austin’s decade-long transition from college town to boom town, a period in which money and technology changed everything and everybody—including Dewey Winburne.
Change is a hot topic these days all across Texas, but nowhere more than Austin, where a gold-rush mentality has set in. In glass office towers and squat coffeehouses, the talk is of stock options and public offerings and newly minted millions. Each week reporters from Los Angeles and New York come to town, deplaning at the shiny new airport, with its pit barbecue and its endless loop of piped-in local music, and trot out the success stories of the modern era. Twentysomethings out-earning their parents before the ink on their diplomas is dry. Homeowners able to sell and retire early, thanks to a skyrocketing housing market. Downtown development that can’t keep pace with the demand for space. More jobs than there are qualified people to fill them. In all the breathless accounts, however, there’s little mention of the downside to the upside: the eighty-hour weeks that pit work against family, the growing gap between haves and have-nots, traffic more appropriate to Dallas or Houston, the transformation of a distinct landscape into one resembling everyplace else, the unrelenting pressure of the fast-track lifestyle. It was that pressure, finally, that got to Dewey, who saw technology as a means rather than an end, a tool of education, not commerce. He could never quite reconcile his desire to do good with everyone else’s to do well.
Whatever the reality, the crowd at St. David’s wasn’t prepared to accept it. As Dewey’s wife, Dorothy, read lyrics from a song by Bruce Cockburn, one of his favorite musicians, and the Reverend Stephen Kinney, one of his oldest friends, delivered the eulogy, the mourners kept returning to the question of why they were there. Why had the good-news evangelist who preached that the tech revolution would break the chains of poverty and ignorance checked out before his work was done? Why would someone who gave others a new lease on life take his own?
Dewey Winburne stuck out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t just that he marched to a different drummer, though he did with great relish. He was hard to miss, even in a crowd. What his large physical presence—he was a strapping six-footer—didn’t make plain, his nonstop chatter did. He was always pulling surprises out of his leather shoulder bag, not just the magic tricks he liked to perform but also samples of his latest creative output, and he was only too happy to give you one: a video called Drugs, Alcohol or Freedom , which was a finalist at the 1993 Charleston International Film Festival; or the CD-ROMs Addiction and Its Processes and Life Moves: The Process of Recovery , which won Best of Show and a Gold Medal for Excellence, respectively, at NewMedia magazine’s Invision 1994 Multimedia Awards Event.
He knew the subject matter well. A native of Austin, Dewey had moved back from Houston with his new bride, Dorothy Gilbertson, to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, and he liked the friendly vibe and low cost of living enough to stay after he got out of school, renting a succession of bungalows before buying one north of campus. Like many others of that place and time, he flirted with alcohol and drugs to the point of abuse, but he confronted his demons and got on the road to recovery, a change of life he loved talking about to others in his gregarious, expansive way.
His natural tendency to proselytize led him to teach—specifically, at the American Institute for Learning (AIL), an alternative school for kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t thrive in the public school system. It was there, in AIL’s converted warehouse downtown, that Dewey asserted his role as Pied Piper, reaching kids by relating to them on their own level. “It was therapy for him,” says multimedia producer Floyd Wray, a close friend. “He was really touched by kids who’d dropped out and gotten into drugs. He started recording their stories on camera.”
“He got us to believe in ourselves,” says Patrick Curry, who took multimedia classes from Dewey at age fourteen, in the summer of 1994. “The whole spirit there was ‘teach by doing.’ They acknowledged that the traditional process of education had failed. He’d say, ‘This system sucks, but I’ve figured out how to play it.’” He did so by letting the kids play—with audio, video, and AIL’s