Memories of Dean Allen

The hardest type of post to write is one about someone who is no longer with us.

“Here is one of my favourite photos. Of my favourite man.” — Photograph courtesy of Gail Armstrong.

It started, for me—Bloke—with a cryptic email from Dean a short while ago, referring to the domain credentials for textpattern.com:

“I’m not well and wanted to make sure you had them no matter what came to pass.”

The tone was ominous and, mere days later, news filtered through that it was fatal.

Like many, I suspect, I read a couple of the early Toasts to Dean and stuck my digital fingers in my ears, refusing to believe that he could be gone. That maybe he’d surface with a cheery quip along the Mark Twain lines: “Rumours of my demise have been exaggerated”. Then I read the piece by his friend Om Malik and it sank in: Dean, creator of Textpattern, lover of the written word and typography, was no more.

Similarly, like many, I’d never met the guy. I did try when he visited London in 2013, offering to hop on a train for the three-hour journey and meet up in the capital, even if only for a single drink. His time in the city was, sadly, short enough that he said a meeting would not be possible before he headed out to another part of the UK. I wonder if I should have been more insistent, likely the closest I’d ever been geographically to the man who set me on the path I’ve trodden since 2006. But I respected his decision; his privacy.

And that’s what is the most fascinating thing about him. Fiercely outspoken yet strangely private. You get a curious sense that you know everything about his life through his blog and writing projects, yet have only scratched the surface of what represented the real Dean.

His ideals of course live on in Textpattern. The notion that you should Just Write and everything else should be there to support that endeavour is still at the heart of the software I’ve been lucky enough to be part of for over a decade. I intend to keep it that way, not through any altruistic need to maintain Dean’s legacy, but because it’s the right thing to do and fills a niche.

Textpattern is a writers’ tool first and a CMS second; to get information ‘out there’ as quickly as possible with the minimum of fuss. It’s not trying to be everything to everybody, it’s for lovers of words, paragraphs, even individual letters on the page. Lovers of the craft of presenting information for others to consume. That’s what sets it apart from pretty much everything else.

Without Dean I wouldn’t have learned PHP when I did. Without Dean, I wouldn’t have been part of this community and had the opportunity to meet and learn from many people of varying disciplines, all brought together by the software he created at the turn of the millennium. Without Dean, the world wouldn’t have Textile; probably wouldn’t have Markdown or WordPress in their current forms either. That they exist has enabled millions, including me, to express their thoughts and ideas on the Internet, and we’re all better off for it.

In short, without Dean the world would be very different. I’d certainly be very different, and I suspect that’s the same for many people—both those who did and didn’t know him personally. Certainly the number of people offering memories, tales of meetings, anecdotes and hope for the future aren’t doing so out of some self-gratifying need to say something because he’s dead. It’s because he touched so many people’s lives in so many different ways.

And for someone who spent a large portion of the last decade in a self-imposed exile, that’s one hell of an achievement.

Dean Allen at MoMA, New York, 1987. — Photograph courtesy of Kathy Slade.
Dean Allen in Vancouver, circa 2006. — Photograph courtesy of Matt Mullenweg.

Comments

  1. Well done Bloke. Damn if Dean from beyond didn’t reach out and make you a better writer.

    I came to Textpattern after Dean had left the scene. Like Dean, Textpattern itself is a road less traveled. Perhaps those of us on the Textpattern journey have a speck of Dean in us, seeking a brilliant tool not many have. Or even know exists.

  2. Bloke’s post encapsulates for many of us our reaction to Dean: his writing, his product and most importantly his Little CMS That Could. I discovered his writing at the turn of the millennium. I immediately was drawn to his wry writing. His love of typography and sense of design. And he was a fellow Vancouverite. There was a sense that I might at some point cross paths and meet him, this early pioneer of the Web. Especially as he was a part-time instructor at the SFU Harbour Centre Communication course. But alas that never did take place. In 2003/4 Textpattern was released and as I was reading Textism, and Cardigan Industries, which were “published” on Textpattern, I was eager to try my hand at using a cms to develop my own little humble web site. Folks like Dan Benjamin, at Hivelogic, and John Gruber, at Daring Fireball, progressive pioneers in web things were early boosters of Dean and his products. So when Textpattern was released i downloaded it and never looked back.

    It was the start of a beautiful “friendship”.

    A “friendship” that gives more than it expects back.

    Hope for the Future and Everything Is Going To Be Alright

  3. Rest In Peace, God Bless.

  4. terrible news… only a luminous person could create such an elegant thing as textpattern

  5. Thoughts, words, typography, textdrive and textpattern, living on the countryside with life-enjoying dogs – a lot of things made me feel unchanging very close to someone (and his family hidden behind) whom I would also have liked to call and meet him as a friend. He touched my life and I am continuously grateful to him.
    And I’ll continue to contribute to keep Textpattern as the right thing to do.

  6. I LOVED Textpattern when I began using it in… 2004? Can’t remember the exact year.

    Dean was this mysterious character, who sometimes communicated, at other times didn’t.

    Everyone wished he’d be more… available (for lack of a better word). He was kinda enigmatic. Everyone knew he was sort of a… genius – a one of a kind. Someone who could have been the inspiration for WordPress’ “Code is Poetry” (didn’t Dean make that “Code is Pottery”?) – Dean wasn’t a particularly great programmer, from a programming viewpoint. But from an artistic, conceptual viewpoint: he was an artist. His code was an expression of artful elegance.

    Yet, as I sit here, I have no idea who he really was. Why so seclusive? Wish we all knew more. But I guess that’s the “name of the game”: geniuses are weird. Like Steve Jobs was weird. Elon Musk is weird. Warren Buffett too.

    <>One last note: WordPress won the “compact CMS” battle due to the amazing leadership-skills of Matt Mullenweg. Every tribe needs a leader. Dean wasn’t a leader. He was more of a founder, father, inventor.

    All the best to the people close to him – friends and family ❤️
    Oliver

  7. Just heard the sad news.
    Rest in peace, genius.

  8. Thank you Bloke.

    There’s something about this place, about Dean, and about what he started at TXP somehow. Yes, the world has moved on, but this is still a safe place, to think and wonder, and not just about $$$$. To do stuff, and do it for the pleasure and delight. I even smiled to myself noticing the prevalence of ‘em–dashes’ in the various posts… Anyway, thank you for trying to capture and describe part of the mystery that was our founder.

  9. Dean Rest In Peace

  10. Dear Everyone who loved Dean as I do. Isn’t it great to know in the waves of understandings he shared with us, and in the elegant twists of his writing, he left a legacy. Maybe I call it articulations of possibility. Squinting wryly at the incomplete interpretations of life and situations he saw through so much, twirling it to make sense of our interpretations.

    And to you Dean – from your (hopefully happy) perch, see how much you are loved and enjoyed and have a niche in so many hearts….

  11. So sad to read this.

    Dean was an enigma to me, I occasionally searched to learn more about the man who left me delighted by the clarity and design of Textile, but only found the odd photo of him, or his dogs, in the countryside in France.

    +1 for what Bloke said and +1 for Dean, wherever he is, and all who his works have helped inspire and progress.

    In sadness,

    -Alan

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