Crashed

Dewey Winburne was an early casualty of Austin’s war with itself: a slacker turned high-tech hero who couldn’t take the pressure of the new economy and ended it all. For others like him, however, the trouble may be just beginning.

March 2000By Comments

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 Internet connection—on computer equipment he hustled from sympathetic businesses. “Dewey was the first person to look beyond my age and treat me as a peer,” Curry says. “He was an amazing liberator.”

While Dewey was finding his way at AIL, he was also organizing the community of tech types who were making up their jobs as they went along. “We’d all hang out together,” says Chipp Walters, the multimedia designer who co-founded the software company Human Code in 1993. “We were so confident in what we were doing. If anyone needed a program I had, I’d loan it. No one was going to steal your ideas, and everyone shared ideas freely.”

“We’d sit around and talk about what multimedia should do,” remembers Hugh Forrest, who signed on to the SXSW Interactive team early on and now runs it. “All I knew about Dewey was that he’d won these awards—he was this crazy freak. He was everything I’m not. I’m analytical. I get to meetings on time. I’m organized. Dewey ran on Dewey time. I could never pin him down.”

The crazy freak’s high energy and emerging high profile attracted the attention of Kozmetsky, a Dell Computer board member who founded both the IC2 Institute, a multimedia think tank affiliated with UT, and its subsidiary, the Austin Technology Incubator, which nurtured and nourished start-ups with cheap office space, advice, and connections. “The first serious discussion I had with him was about taking classic literature and putting it in a multimedia format so that it would be easier for kids to understand,” Kozmetsky says. “At the time, I was very concerned about how we were going to convert Austin into a center for multimedia training. What AIL had done and what Dewey was doing made a difference.” Dr. K liked the way Dewey engaged him, argued with him, made him think. “When he told me he wanted to start a company,” Kozmetsky recalls, “I said, ‘Come on over.’ He was transforming Austin. He was changing the culture. He was changing the economy. He was providing opportunities. How many people do you find like that?”

Big Fun Productions joined the Incubator in the summer of 1995, soon changing its name to Interactive Architex; Dewey was president and CEO. “I told him we’d let him pay the rent with his labor,” Kozmetsky says. For instance, Dewey would set up the Incubator’s new multimedia room, but he could use it for his business. He also built up a kind of psychic sweat equity: He’d often meet with Dr. K at six in the morning and toss around ideas. The possibilities were unlimited. Dewey talked about creating interactive versions of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and the New Testament and putting the writings of Walker Percy on CD-ROM.

Such projects cost money, though, and Dewey’s discomfort with the terms offered by venture capitalists was palpable. Sure, they provided the means to make things happen, but as part-owners in whatever they invested in, VCs could get in the way; they had egos and opinions about how things should be run, and if they didn’t like what you were doing, you could lose your company. Vulture capitalists, he liked to call them.

By mid-1996, Dr. K and Dewey dreamed up something for him to do that didn’t involve private funding. Their idea was the EnterTech Project, a state-funded program that would train workers—some unemployed, some underemployed, many on welfare—for Austin’s new economy using high-tech teaching tools. It was a logical collaboration, considering Dr. K’s connections in government and Dewey’s background in educating at-risk students and working at AIL, an institution that received public money.

All the other entrepreneurs in the Incubator had a project to sell; now Dewey had one too. If EnterTech met deadlines and came in on budget, he would get a financial reward from IC2 as well as more work producing similar projects. But it was an extremely complex task. First, he had to articulate the concept to himself—he had to decide what exactly it was—and then explain it to others in the form of a script. From that script, a design document had to be drawn up by a subcontractor, while grant proposals had to be written, approved, submitted, rewritten, and resubmitted. Dewey called the shots in every phase, subject to the oversight of Dr. K and other advisers at IC2.

And those weren’t the only challenges. Funding EnterTech with state grants meant there was no upfront money—for Dewey or anyone else. The Incubator made no provision for salaries either. He offered an online content developer he met at church, Henry Mills, office space in exchange for his knowledge and assistance. Meanwhile, because of the long hours of a tech start-up, he quit his job at AIL and was asked to step down as director of SXSW Interactive. His descent had begun.

FOR A YEAR AND A HALF—WHILE Dorothy worked proofreading jobs to support them and their young son, Isaac—Dewey brainstormed and tweaked the concept and worked on grant applications. In the summer of 1998, EnterTech received a $1.9 million grant from the Texas Workforce Commission and the Office of the Governor. But the money came in stages, as reimbursement for completed work. The process was daunting. Dealing with the bureaucracies of the Incubator, IC2, state agencies, and the seventy coalition members that had agreed to advise the project—including colleges, school districts, government agencies, and companies like Dell and 3M—was no easy task. He complained to his friend Michael McGar, the CEO of the Austin software design firm Alchemy Interactive, that the details were distracting him from the noble idea that had inspired EnterTech in the first place. McGar knew better: There was a lot more to being an entrepreneur than having a vision. “You have to be ready to rear up and bare your teeth,” he said, “and stand and fight with relentless determination to defend your position.”

Both of them knew Dewey wasn’t that kind of guy. He was compassionate, caring, and altruistic, but he wasn’t a leader in the business sense of the word. He would show up late to meetings, usually blaming forgetfulness. And he’d slipped off the wagon: Friends reported seeing him smoking pot and drinking beer. The demands of EnterTech were becoming too much to bear, and they got worse when IC2, which had signed the contracts with the state and struck the alliances with the corporations, began to have problems of its own, including turnover in the top job at the Incubator—three directors in two years—and uncertainty about the university regents’ long-term support for multimedia research. When Deaton Bednar, the project director for EnterTech, got grief from the Workforce Commission over the project, she passed it down to Dewey, who had no one to pass it down to.

It came to a head in December 1998. A small Austin firm called Top Drawer Productions had been hired to draw up the design document for EnterTech, but from the start Dewey complained to a colleague that the subcontractor didn’t share his passion; it was just a gig. By the time the 87-page document was delivered, there was talk of bad feelings all around. When a faction from one of EnterTech’s coalition members, Baylor University, began nit-picking over details of the document, Top Drawer withdrew.

Dewey freaked. “They’re stabbing me in the back,” he told Floyd Wray. “I’m gonna lose the project, and this is my big chance.” With his deadline only six months away, he’d have to find another firm to replace Top Drawer, while trying to live up to what he thought Dr. K’s expectations were. “I’m in over my head,” he complained to Hugh Forrest several times.

Soon enough, IC2 found a replacement for Top Drawer: Human Code, which was still looking for its niche and saw one in learning technologies. It was a different company—Dewey’s friend Chipp Walters had been ousted as CEO the previous year—but one he could do business with. Through the holidays, Dewey and Henry Mills put in twelve-hour days six days a week preparing documents to get the operation up to speed, which was fine for a teenage whiz kid immersed in a start-up but grueling for a grown-up with a nine-year-old son starved for attention. “Dewey was tired,” Mills says. “He was talking to me about his body, his trouble sleeping, the feeling that he couldn’t get away from this.” He sought medical care and began taking antidepressants, but they weren’t having much effect.

In January, when Human Code took the reins, Dewey complained he was being left out of the loop. What he couldn’t see was that he’d shepherded the EnterTech Project to the point that the creative side had to yield to the business side; dollars and cents had become the issue. Human Code might actually meet the deadline. Instead of riding the next wave, Dewey was being inundated by mundane paper shuffling. “The work was done,” Mills says. “Dewey just didn’t feel it.” When Dewey ran into Forrest in early February at an Austin Software Council meeting, he said he was getting “squeezed” and pulled a twenty-page contract out of his shoulder bag. “I don’t even have a lawyer,” he moaned. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

Sensing that Dewey was stressed, Mindy Jackson, an EnterTech colleague hired by IC2 as a project coordinator, urged him to take a break. “You’ve got everything in place,” she said. “You need to take two weeks off, go fishing. We’ll be here supporting you.”

“You’ll realize you don’t need me,” he replied.

On Thursday, February 11, Dewey met for three hours with Dr. K. The next morning, he spent a few hours with lawyers and executives at Human Code and then went home. His family wasn’t there; Dorothy had taken Isaac to Wisconsin to visit her parents. Friends suspect he was convinced that he’d been stripped of his worth—but whatever the reason, he walked to the work shed in the back yard. He may or may not have inhaled solvents to get high. He definitely lifted a can to his lips and swallowed it.

Curry, a twenty-year-old employee at the hot Austin design company frogdesign, worked sixty hours straight to finish a project after he learned of Dewey’s death. He then tendered his resignation, and when he got home, he set up a virtual memorial to Dewey on the Web (patrickcurry.com/dewey). Then he did nothing for weeks. “If Dewey Winburne, the man who brought it all together, could crack, then something’s completely screwed up,” Curry reasons.

A year later, Curry is working again, at a Web-based education start-up called notHarvard.com, only this time he has a creative and financial ownership stake. He’s bullish on business—“It’s one thing to be fourteen and have a computer and do whatever you want and another to be twenty and have a computer and $5 million and do whatever you want”—but he’s determined not to get trapped in a traditional corporate culture. “No stupid company manuals,” he says. “Everyone participates in stock and buys into the vision.”

Though he never saw it through to its completion, Dewey’s vision for the EnterTech Project has been realized. There are two test programs up and running in Texas cities, and more instructional units being set up, with a goal of five hundred graduates by the end of May 2000. Sitting in front of a computer screen in a classroom for three weeks, the would-be workers are introduced to a virtual company in which they are presented with real-life situations that prepare them for the workplace, from filling out a W-2 form to learning how to troubleshoot on the assembly line. The simulated experiences give them the tools they need to climb the ladder of opportunity while expanding the applicant pool for high-tech recruiters.

“This is an employer-based program,” says Bednar. “We’re facilitators for employers, as I had to remind Dewey all the time. Of course, Dewey would always respond by saying he was there for the learners.” If the learners pay attention and figure it out, they’ll be on the job in thirty days. For Dewey, that could be the sweetest legacy of all.

“There was a perception that he wasn’t successful,” Chipp Walters says. “That’s wrong. Dewey was a big-picture guy, a dreamer in the good sense of the word, and a patriot for the cause. But the culture changed significantly. It’s not about the journey anymore. It’s about money.

“He made a mistake,” Walters continues. “We all make mistakes. His, he couldn’t take back.”

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