Gregory Stuart Williamson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.