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Gregory Stuart Williamson

Greg Williamson, burning the candle at both ends... pretty typical of him!

Greg Williamson, burning the candle at both ends… pretty typical of him!

Gregory Stuart Williamson, an unsung hero and longtime collaborator, died suddenly last week, apparently of a blood clot and stroke, while standing at a supermarket. He was not even 60 yet.

I want to take a moment to remember and honor Greg. I spent 17 years in close collaboration with him, and I don’t think anyone I ever worked with was as reliable, as diligent, as uncompromising, and as generous as Greg Williamson. He was also legendarily stubborn, curmudgeonly, and had a temper that had to be experienced to be believed. And if you were his friend, as I am proud to say I was for many years, you definitely experienced it!

But if there was ever anyone with a prickly outside and big soft inside, it was Greg Williamson. He was smart, critical, often sarcastic, and frequently hilarious. We had one of those office art Xerox signs on the wall for many years that said “The beatings will continue until morale improves” with the addition of an ‘s’ to morale, since Greg’s name in Processed World was Primitivo Morales. We would roll our eyes when he would launch on one of his oft-repeated aphorisms, like “The People United, Will Never Split a Pizza!” But now we’ll never hear it again.

Passing the pipe, the cheshire grin emerging from the sweet cloud of smoke...

Passing the pipe, the cheshire grin emerging from the sweet cloud of smoke…

It is said about some people that they would give you the shirt off their back. Greg was such a person. He worked as a programmer for many years, usually getting a decent salary but he went through his money as fast as he got it, and partly it was because he was damned generous. He came across the Bay (bitching about BART nearly every day) at his own expense, entering with two six-packs, a couple of bags of chips, and a pipe that was soon being passed around with the best quality pot available.

I probably saw Greg in this position more hours than any other... here at the Grant Building around 1997...

I probably saw Greg in this position more hours than any other… here at the Grant Building around 1997…

Processed World collating party at 460 Ashbury in 1984 for issue #12.

Processed World collating party at 460 Ashbury in 1984 for issue #12.

Once he was at the office (starting around 1983-84 at our digs at 460 Ashbury, then at “The Cave” at 37 Clementina from 1985-1990, and then the Grant Building from 1990-2007) he was always ready to get down and work. He was a stalwart member of the Processed World collective for most the magazine’s life (in fact, he was probably still a bit pissed at me at the end, that I had quit the project in 1994; he often lamented the loss of the magazine and the community that came together around it).

He stuck around to do the backbreaking schlepping of boxes and collating of pages long after a lot of other folks had bailed. He wrote an incredible article about his upbringing in Los Alamos, NM, where both of his parents worked in the nuclear bomb program. He wrote many other pieces in Processed World too, and contributed his insane wit to the blistering graphic humor therein as well.

In 1994 when we began plotting Shaping San Francisco, Greg was in the heart of the effort (kicking and screaming all the way, it must be said—he never put much faith in a grassroots community history project as having any radical political impact. And yet, his thousands of hours of unpaid labor made it possible in a way that no one else’s labor could have). When we finally rolled out the first edition on CD-ROM and public kiosk in January 1998, it was a triumph of his creative programming skills as much as it was anything else. He kept those kiosks running when vandals would descend on them, he helped figure out how to make the software install and the CD-ROMs run, how to get the peculiar software to jump through all the hoops we wanted it to jump through.

Greg at the Grand Rollout of the first edition of Shaping San Francisco at the SF Main Library. The kiosk is hidden behind the woman in the foreground.

Greg at the Grand Rollout of the first edition of Shaping San Francisco at the SF Main Library. The kiosk is hidden behind the woman in the foreground.

A better view of the first kiosk, art of the three "newsies" who grinned from behnd the computer by Mike Mosher.

A better view of the first kiosk, art of the three “newsies” who grinned from behnd the computer by Mike Mosher.

 

And when Microsoft changed the operating system to Windows XP, it killed all his work. The project stopped functioning with the new Windows, and we were faced with a mountain of work to undo what we’d done and re-engineer it in a way that would free us from proprietary software forever. It took several years but Greg managed to extract everything from the version he had so painstakingly built, and set the stage for what we finally migrated to and opened in 2009, FoundSF.org.

Some of the core production team for the first edition of Shaping San Francisco (left to right) Jim Swanson, Marina Lazzara, Joe Caffentzis, Greg Williamson, Magali Barre (not pictured) Jim Fisher, Dimitri de la Marea, Daniel Steven Crafts, and a host of other friends, interns, and contributors...

Some of the core production team for the first edition of Shaping San Francisco (left to right) Jim Swanson, Marina Lazzara, Joe Caffentzis, Greg Williamson, Magali Barre, Chris Carlsson; (not pictured) Jim Fisher, Dimitri de la Marea, Daniel Steven Crafts, and a host of other friends, interns, and contributors…

I’ve been lucky in life and enjoyed a lot of “success” in terms of doing projects that have affected many people’s lives (not the kind of “success” this society normally recognizes, that which leads to money). I’ve also enjoyed a disproportionate amount of fame from these projects (Processed World magazine, Critical Mass, Shaping San Francisco), which has left people like Greg in the undeserving shadows. Greg Williamson and all the work he did is why today over 30,000 people a month can access the remarkable archive at Foundsf.org. He stopped being directly involved with Shaping San Francisco some years ago, before we got the Foundsf site open, but without the unnoticed, unrewarded, endless toil he put in to it through long nights over years in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, we could never have brought it to its present state.

Greg was also a constant presence in various other efforts. He loved street theater and political interventions, so here’s a few images to remember those things too. The “Prisoners of Daily Life” float was part of the End of the World’s Fair, and that’s Greg’s old green pickup being dragged by those prisoners through San Francisco. The rest of the Processed World crowd made the “Terminals Have Ears” float which also rolled that day, May 12, 1984.

Greg's green pickup as the "Prisoners of Daily Life" float at the May 1984 End of the World's Fair.

Greg’s green pickup as the “Prisoners of Daily Life” float at the May 1984 End of the World’s Fair.

"Terminals Have Ears", the other Processed World float at the End of the World's Fair.

“Terminals Have Ears”, the other Processed World float at the End of the World’s Fair.

In 1998 we joined with Art & Revolution, taking the self-satirizing name “Shaking San Francisco” and produced one of the dozens of performances that together made up “Reclaim May Day” that year. Ours was based on a 12-foot tall, four-sided box with gorgeous painted canvases on the outside, we called “The Rememberator.” We’d take turns going into the box and coming out as historic characters, while as an ensemble we performed a variety of office chores and did choreographed moves to various spoken word and poetic pieces going in the foreground.

Rehearsing for The Rememberator at Reclaim May Day, May 1998. Greg is second from right.

Rehearsing for The Rememberator at Reclaim May Day, May 1998. Greg is second from right.

The Rememberator performance at Dolores Park, Mayday 1998. Greg is in back under the red arrow. Bill Kersnowski as Emperor Norton gesturing at the actual device: The Rememberator!

The Rememberator performance at Dolores Park, Mayday 1998. Greg is in back under the red arrow. Bill Kersnowski as Emperor Norton gesturing at the actual device: The Rememberator!

A year later, Shaking San Francisco appeared as “Interference Theater” at the corner of Market and Montgomery, garbed in office drag with white plastic half-masks with UPC codes in the forehead, miming office toil and then doing strange ritualistic kick-lines and acts of obeisance to the stock tickers in downtown during an otherwise “normal” lunchtime.

Yep, that's Greg, making his appeals to the higher gods of the stock exchange!

Yep, that’s Greg, making his appeals to the higher gods of the stock exchange!

Greg showed up. He was here. He didn’t flinch, and he really didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. He loved and he yearned for love back. He got a lot more of it than he generally wanted to accept or even recognize. That was hard for all of us, who wanted his happiness as much as anything. I’m so sad that he’s gone. I hope he knew that all his old comrades always had a place in their hearts for him. I know I’ll always remember and honor him, for what he did, who he was, how he steadily put himself forward to make the world a better place, to fight for justice, to take no guff, and finally, to keep laughing in the face of tragedy and absurdity. Gregory Stuart Williamson was an extraordinary man. I’m lucky he was part of my life.

 

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11 Responses to “Gregory Stuart Williamson”

  1. 1
    Jose Skinner:

    Great tribute for a great guy. He will indeed be missed.

  2. 2
    Jose Skinner:

    He was the wit behind the cultural rectifications we did to billboards in Bay Area in early 80s. He could also hold a mean ladder, this giant.

  3. 3
    James Sederberg:

    Well done, Chris. I am so sad to read of Greg’s passing. He one of the most interesting and original souls I had the pleasure to meet as a part of the Typesetting/Mass/Shaping SF/etc. days. Thanks and rest in peace, Primitivo!

  4. 4
    Geoff McDonald:

    Thanks for such an eloquent tribute to Greg, a complex, brilliant, enraged (and enraging!) guy.

    Greg would often cite a line from Brecht about people he admired: “There are men that fight one day and are good, others fight one year and they’re better, and there are those who fight many years and are very good, but there are the ones who fight their whole lives and those are the indispensable ones.” Greg was indispensable.

  5. 5
    Marina:

    An always constant since I’ve been in sf. All I keep thinking about is my right ear resting on top of his big tummy when we hugged. He was a good friend and a mentor of sorts, in the wackiness of the empire.

  6. 6
    Clint "Boz" Boswell:

    Thanks for the beautiful words that sum up so much of Greg. He was all of those things and he is already sorely missed!

  7. 7
    Howard Williams:

    Thanks Chris for a tribute to our friend saying what he did and who he was. Or at least as much as words can do in that regard. I am still trying to come to terms with his sudden passing and your tribute helps.

  8. 8
    Carla Laser:

    Dear Chris,

    Thank you the lovely tribute.

    I am very sad about Greg’s passing away. He was always so awesome to see. His heart was always open to a story. His brown eyes often were full of some naughty comment. I think I may have some videos of such and shall dig for them. Such a smart and kind friend. Very missed.

  9. 9
    David Lovato:

    That was perfect Chris…
    Greg was a sheer force of “unature”! I love and miss you dearly Greg, and my tears will fall like rain until my brain retains itself.
    austa compadre!

  10. 10
    Charlie Rodriguez:

    Came across this obituary by sheer chance; talk about a blast from the past! Greg and I grew up in Santa Fe and were friends in the early 70’s; at one time we both worked as busboys at a Denny’s restaurant. Sometimes Greg would give me a lift to work (he drove a 1962 (?) Corvair with an unsynchronized first gear).

    Greg was designated the ‘lead busboy’ and even then his sense of humor was irreverent and funny as hell; working with him was like playing; our shift was over before I knew it. At the time I didn’t realize the extent of his influence over me; it was like a blindfold was lifted from my eyes and I was never the same afterward.

    After that summer Greg left for boarding school. I saw him once or twice in the mid 70’s and then lost touch for over 40 years – until now. Looking at the pics I see a trace of the Greg I used to know – especially the grin swirling in smoke.

    Even though Greg has moved on, a part of him still lives within me. He is one of the most honest, straight forward, and brilliant people I have ever known; I wish we had kept in touch. If I were to sum Greg up in one sentence it would be : What is why?

  11. 11
    David Occhinero:

    What can I say about Greg other than he was my best friend and partner in many direct political actions too many to name here. Once thing I will say is he will be missed by his large circle of comrades who fought the good fight for so many years. There will never be another Greg Williamson he broke the mold.

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