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From Lakeside School computer geek to pioneer Microsoft programmer to the gay community’s biggest benefactor, Ric Weiland seemed to have it all: brains, looks, wealth, social conscience. Then, on a sunny Pride weekend, he took his own life.

By Kevin Phinney December 23, 2008 Published in the September 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Gluekit

RIC WEILAND WAS NEVER VERY comfortable around people. But in the exacting universe of computer code, a realm governed by ones and zeros, he was at home. Here the rules made sense: Variables vanished, moods didn’t matter, and mistakes could be excised and forgotten forever. Deep in the sanctuary of his mind, Ric Weiland built a utopia of math and logic.

Weiland befriended numbers, and they made him wealthy beyond his dreams. He was nearly there at the creation when his high school friends Bill Gates and Paul Allen launched Microsoft, and he played a key role in its early success. But he was not cast from the same brainiac mold. Weiland was tall, dark, handsome, and openly gay, one of the first out-of-the-closet wizards in the rapidly converging worlds of computers and business. Before he was 30, every dream—a fulfilling career, fabulous wealth, an uncompromised personal life—seemed within his grasp.

No sooner did Weiland strike riches with Microsoft than he resolved to spend them. Rather than splurge on himself, though, he disbursed millions of dollars to a wide array of carefully chosen charities. Though he often seemed shy and reticent, he stood up before 2,000 assembled shareholders of General Electric in 1999 and challenged them to repudiate discrimination based on sexual orientation. The next year, the company did just that.

Seven years later, at 53, Ric Weiland was still fit and good looking. Rigorous workouts kept his frame rock solid. The Donny Osmond blow-dry he sported in the ’70s had long since receded into a distinguished gray, cut short—golfer chic, often with matching goatee. A cascade of snapshots over his lifetime show him smiling brightly, though his gaze seems distant and distracted. If anything was amiss, it was kept well under wraps, along with the extent of his wealth. Few beyond his closest friends in -Seattle’s tight-knit gay subculture knew how deep Weiland’s pockets were, and fewer still knew of his contributions to both computer technology and the push for gay equality. Last winter, Seattle’s gay umbrella organization, the Pride Foundation, made public the scope of Weiland’s generosity: He had donated more than a third of his fortune, $65 million, to the foundation and the groups it oversees, the largest single-donor gift ever made to the gay-rights movement. Weiland had done well and done good. He had the means to do anything else he wanted.

On June 24, 2006, he woke up at a friend’s home, ran some laundry, then returned to his own house. The next day, he was found there with a bullet hole where his left eye had been.

Forty years ago, Ric Weiland was ambling around the leafy campus of the Lakeside School with Allen and Gates, two fellow students and fast and lasting friends. They shared many of the usual interests of teenage boys: the best pizzas, the latest movies, the coolest albums. “It was Ric who turned me on to Tommy by the Who,” Paul Allen recalled in a recent telephone interview. As fellow members of the Lakeside Programming Group, they also shared a passion for computers. The story goes that Weiland built his first computer in eighth grade. “Ric was a brilliant programmer,” said Allen, but the computer buddies diverged in one key area: “I do remember spending hours on the phone with him trying to get him to come to an exchange dance to meet girls, and he was never very receptive to that, which makes more sense now than it did then.”

Weiland tooled around conservative Albuquerque in a root beer-colored Corvette with a vanity plate, “YESIAM,” that told the world he was out and proud.

When Allen and Gates founded Microsoft in Albuquerque in 1975, they tapped Weiland to be their general manager, realizing that he had strengths that they lacked. “Bill and I were a little more free-form,” said Allen, “and Ric was—well, we knew Ric to be organized. He was much more meticulous, dedicated, and thoughtful.”

Moreover, said Allen, Ric knew his own mind from a young age. Not long after he joined Gates and Allen, Weiland allowed himself a rare treat—a new set of wheels. Soon he was tooling around conservative Albuquerque in a root beer–colored Corvette with a vanity plate, “YESIAM,” that told the world he was out and proud. At Weiland’s memorial service Bill Gates surprised fellow mourners by disclosing that not only had Ric been his and Allen’s roommate back in their start-up days, but they had invited him to be a third partner in Microsoft—an offer Ric declined in order to attend graduate school in the late ’70s. “And when Ric decided something,” said Allen, “that was it. Oh, he’d deliberate to figure out a plan. But once he decided, he’d go with that.”

In 1982, after a stint at Harvard Business School, Weiland returned to Microsoft, and now ensconced himself in Redmond. Gates and Allen named him team leader of a project they called Microsoft Works—a streamlined suite of tools, including spreadsheet, database, and word-processing programs, for home and home-office use. When he worked, Weiland was indefatigable, forgoing breaks, sleep, and food; he just needed time to tweak the code.

When he completed a project, Weiland would surface on the social scene. “For me, Ric was almost two different people,” says his friend Tom Powell, a location scout for Starbucks who met Weiland in the early ’80s. “Not in the sense of having a split personality or anything like that. But he’d be locked away for weeks at a time writing code, and then he’d come roaring out and want to party. Hard.” When they met, Weiland was dating a friend of Powell’s named Bob Browning, the social director of a party-boy clique known as “the Ritas.”

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Weiland became an honorary “Rita pet.” Kicking back with a throng of revelers seemed just the thing to rest his overtaxed left brain. “And we did throw some wild ones,” Powell recalls. Partyers were invited to “Come As Your Mother” or bring baby pictures that guests would try to match to the adults. On Halloween, the Ritas would rent a school bus (with driver) and stock it with booze, boys, and goody bags filled with drink tickets and festive tchotchkes. “One year, it was clip-on Space Needle earrings,” Powell says. “Ric loved that.”

There was also a lot of passing sexual partners around. The Ritas were among the first to be hit hard when a mysterious “gay cancer” slipped into the gay community in the early 1980s. The Ritas finally fizzled. Too many hangers-on, Powell suggests, and too many members lost to AIDS. “The Halloween [party] went from one bus to two,” Powell recalls, “and at the same time, Bobby [Browning] was among the first to go. He said his goodbyes and was gone in two weeks. So it was an enormous catastrophe for us, and the luster just went out. We were getting older and becoming more responsible, and those of us who were left were no longer the young party boys.”

Sometime during those years Weiland contracted HIV. He managed the infection the way he managed everything else in his life—down to the last detail. Blessed with good genes and good looks, he took diligent care of his body and worked out rigorously, morphing over time from swimmer sleek to boxer brawny.

Weiland continued to work even as he began to ponder a life after Microsoft. But doing what? Long before he needed a vault to hold his fortune and long before Gates and Allen showed much interest in philanthropy, Weiland donated to environmental and gay causes. He kept journals at least from the time he was in high school, and in an undated entry from the late ’70s he weighed the pros and cons of philanthropy: “There arose the question of, ‘why I haven’t made much money?’ Even when I promised not to use money for politics and sociological reasons this summer, there was no increase in my wealth. Maybe because I haven’t tithed? (But Paul and Bill sure don’t) Maybe because I have!!”

Later, as Weiland’s wealth grew, he worried about how much he should give away and where it should go. One longtime friend, a software entrepreneur and semiretired chiropractor named Michael Failla, says Ric pored over these questions the way a monk works a rosary or a gambler weighs the odds. “I guess somebody could call these depressive episodes, but I never saw them that way. They were bouts of insecurity, just like you or I have, that’s all. And I guess the first one was back in the ’80s sometime, when Ric first started to come into a lot of money. And he came to stay with me and we talked it through, and that’s when he decided that he’d focus on his philanthropy. After that, whenever he was feeling depressed or introspective, he’d come and stay with me for a few days at a time.”

“Ric was stunned to learn that his income had tripled without him lifting a finger to make it happen. He felt he really hadn’t earned it.”

In 1988, Weiland was working hard to keep all the galaxies in his universe aligned. By day he was still a resident Supergenius at Microsoft. By night he was the shy-but-beefy man-about-town. Then, at a Halloween party, he met an artist named Ben Sharpe. Weiland was wearing a Speedo, a gold medal around his neck, and a bandage on his head. “He was supposed to be Greg Louganis, the Olympic diver,” Sharpe says with a laugh. “I told him he’d won the Best Body of the Night award, and he asked for my number. I asked him if he had anything to write on, and he said he’d remember it. I thought he was pulling my leg, but about a week later he called me.”

Later that year, at the age of 35, Weiland retired from Microsoft. The task of allocating his money seemed daunting, he told a trusted few, because “there’s just so much.” He proved a quick study at strategic investment, but friends say that for the rest of his life he had trouble believing he deserved his success. Five or six years after leaving Microsoft, says Sharpe, Ric “was stunned to learn that his income had tripled without him lifting a finger to make it happen. He felt he really hadn’t earned it.”

Joan DiFuria is a psychotherapist who heads the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute, which has several offices in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Guilt, embarrassment, shame—these can all arise from not coming to terms with your wealth,” she says. “At first there’s usually an excitement and a sense of possibility, but then the responsibility and the weight of that wealth settle in. Over time, one needs to integrate those feelings. ‘Sudden wealth syndrome’ is a term we coined to deal with clients going through exactly this sort of thing. People don’t get a lot of sympathy for their challenges in dealing with sudden wealth. With someone who was already an introvert, sudden wealth can certainly increase feelings of being disconnected and isolated. Rather than relieving stress, it can make life even more stressful.

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Image: Ben Sharpe

“Personal issues don’t suddenly evaporate when money comes into your life,” adds DiFuria. “You can feel as though you’re propelled into a very alien environment and showered with money you didn’t expect or earn. I always tell my clients that money is not a protection from anything other than creditors.”

Sharpe watched as Weiland diversified his investments. “He was obsessed with The Wall Street Journal,” Sharpe says. “He wouldn’t leave the country for more than a few days at a time because he was so into keeping track of his investments.” Sharpe noticed other idiosyncrasies. Weiland collected all kinds of things. “He even had a storage unit with all his childhood furniture set up in it. And he didn’t want to live on a numbered street, either, because numbers don’t give you that sense of community that a named street has.” He could also pinch pennies as if he were still the general manager of a struggling start-up. “Once, on a trip to Europe, Ric was having some back trouble, and so he upgraded himself to first class,” recalls Sharpe, “but I had to ride in coach because to do anything else would have been extravagant. By the time we landed I was livid. I never let him forget it, and he never did it again.”

Weiland and Sharpe dated for 10 years without living together, which Sharpe believes was in deference to Ric’s parents, who lived nearby. “We’d see each other once or twice a week,” Sharpe says. “I didn’t feel obligated to keep Ric entertained, and we didn’t grind on each other over silly little things. We also had an open relationship, and Ric started taking more and more advantage of that. He didn’t like it when I’d say, ‘You were out catting around again.’ He’d end up going home with people, and I’d hear later that he was really, really drunk. So eventually, our romance sort of transitioned into a friendship. Basically, Ric said, ‘We’ve become like brothers.’ ”

In 1998, Weiland began a two-and-a-half-year relationship with Tom Doyle, a personal trainer who shared his love for fitness (and who is also my trainer, and the source through whom I learned about this story). Doyle also noticed Weiland’s “funny little habits.” “In the kitchen, for instance, he’d have all these labels for things in the fridge and cabinets. Once, just to be goofy, I peeled a couple of them off, and he got really mad. Ric could be moody and want to be off on his own sometimes. At one point he told me that he’d gone through a pretty bad depression once, but that it was a long time ago.”

The gregarious Doyle coaxed Weiland out of his wallflower comfort zone. Weiland found himself cohosting cookouts, dancing till dawn, and joining a pilgrimage to see Cher in concert. “We did a lot of socializing, and Ric’s friends would say they’d never seen him more outgoing,” Doyle says. “We’d go to a water park and splash around with kids and just step outside the boundaries of what a normal 40-year-old would do. We’d also travel to look at investments. When PlanetOut [a gay marketing and social networking site] was just getting started in 2001, we went down to San Francisco to meet with a couple of the founders. He picked these things very carefully, usually in private, and generally I’d just go along.”

“Guilt, embarrassment, shame—these can all arise from not coming to terms with your wealth.”

In 2001 their relationship crashed. Doyle had thought they should move in together, but Weiland, despite being initially interested, procrastinated for four months. “Finally I asked him if he really wanted me to move in, and he said no,” Doyle says. “I was stunned. Then I asked him if he even wanted to be together, and he said, ‘No, I don’t.’ We did return to being friends after that but, believe me, there was a cooling-off period.”

Ben Sharpe believes Weiland couldn’t cope with uncertainty, even in himself. “Ric tended to trust facts and figures, not people,” Sharpe says. “Ric was the kind of guy who hid, suppressed, even denied feelings. And there were certain words that just never crossed his lips—phrases like, ‘I love you,’ ‘I was wrong,’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ They really weren’t in his vocabulary.”

In 2002, Weiland began seeing Mike Schaefer, an account manager at a software firm and former strategic adviser to the Seattle City Council. Schaefer says he and Ric were drawn together by a shared interest in gay activism. “I was first attracted by Ric’s commitment to the community,” says Schaefer. “He was a strong believer in the Seattle Foundation’s healthy community model, which included the arts, health, education, and so on. And I was struck by how articulate and focused he was and that he had a really broad portfolio of interests.” Just as Weiland and Doyle had been, Weiland and Schaefer were a conspicuous study in contrasts: Ric, the quiet investor; Mike, the life of the party. Weiland’s longtime friend Michael Failla believes he was both envious of and smitten by Schaefer’s ease in dealing with people. “It was the one thing Ric never felt he was good at,” Failla says, “and he considered Mike to be socially gifted.”

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Doyle soon heard that the new couple had gotten a dog and that Weiland was spending his nights at Schaefer’s house. “I thought Ric was finally settling down,” Doyle says, “because no one saw him out anymore. We didn’t know he was slipping into depression.”

The factors contributing to Weiland’s last decline are a subject of debate, even finger-pointing, among his friends and partners. Failla believes much of Weiland’s trouble stemmed from his relationship with Schaefer, that he felt “overwhelmed” and lost in the glare of Schaefer’s personality, and contends that Schaefer “never really understood how fragile Ric was.” Schaefer points to the loss of both Ric’s parents and his only sibling, all between 1998 and March of 2005, as a main cause. “His Mom had been the primary caregiver for his dad while he was in the early stages of -Alzheimer’s. She had a stroke and was in the hospital for just a short period of time and died. And then his dad went in 2004, and I remember his sister being sick at their dad’s funeral.” Schaefer also says Weiland’s doctors told him that Ric was too dependent on him and advised him to create some distance for their mutual benefit. Physically, Weiland was sagging under the weight of the medications prescribed for his anxiety and insomnia and to control his HIV. In a late journal entry, perhaps his last, he wrote, “My days are very empty, and seem even emptier because I’m able to sleep so little.”

On May 5, 2006, friends spotted Weiland standing on the Aurora Bridge. Schaefer was not at the scene and provides scant detail about the episode. Nevertheless, he says that afterward he confronted Weiland, who didn’t deny that he’d wanted to jump but said he’d lost his nerve. “That’s when his doctors and I finally persuaded him to go to the Meadows,” says Schaefer, explaining that they were concerned about Ric’s drinking as well as the effects of a change in prescriptions. The Meadows is a residential treatment facility for substance abuse in Phoenix. Weiland agreed to undergo a five-week program there, though he maintained to others that depression, not substance abuse, was his problem. He asked Ben Sharpe to escort him for moral support and checked in. Six days later he checked out and flew back to Seattle.

“It feels disorienting to be able to do whatever you want, because there’s no expectation most of the time. About the only one I feel is the expectation to stay alive.”

Schaefer, frustrated that Weiland had left treatment, packed some of Ric’s clothes and took them to him at his house. According to Failla, Ric believed he’d been “kicked out” by Mike, which Schaefer says wasn’t the case at all. “All of his other stuff—his [laptop] computer, art, personal belongings, and millions of dollars in stock certificates—stayed at our house.” Rather, Schaefer says, he was trying to convince Ric that the only way they could get back on track as a couple was if he would return to Phoenix for therapy and a change of meds. Weiland refused.

A short time later, Schaefer phoned Michael Failla in a panic. “Mike told me he was giving Ric some ‘tough love.’ But he’d called Ric’s place and got no answer, and he was afraid Ric had killed himself.” Failla dashed over to Weiland’s house. “He was in a back room with all his bags and he told me he didn’t think that treatment center was right for him; that most of the patients there were dealing with some kind of substance abuse, not depression. I told him he was coming with me, and we went back to my house.”

During the day, Weiland would return to his own house, a cedar-roofed stucco retreat hidden behind a leafy setback in affluent Madison Park, to study the 70 or so nonprofits that knew him as their media-shy benefactor. But he found it increasingly hard to concentrate. Around four or five in the afternoon, Weiland would return to Failla’s house, where, says Failla, “he’d be up all night, reading prospectuses”—and obsessing over past regrets and peering into an uncertain future.

Ben Sharpe invited Ric on a working vacation in Greece, but he declined because the trip was too unstructured for him. Besides, he was still trying to resolve his relationship with Schaefer. “When Ric drove me to the airport,” Sharpe recounts, “he told me that the night before at counseling Mike said he wanted to break up, and Ric didn’t see how he could go on, and that he was contemplating suicide.”

“At one point, [Ric and I] talked about how he saw himself,” Failla recalls. “And he kept coming back to a movie we’d seen at the Egyptian years ago called Amélie.” In the film a shy, lonely young Parisienne despairs of finding love for herself and becomes a secret matchmaker and guardian angel, devising elaborate schemes to patch up the lives of acquaintances and strangers. “He really identified with her and brought it up several times. And in a way, he was just like her. He took tremendous joy and satisfaction from being able to help people doing good work. He’d write these enormous checks to charities and then never answer or return their phone calls. And they weren’t aimless checks. He always knew precisely where his money was going and why. But he also really wanted to make investments that mattered. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you get someone to do that?’ ” But, Weiland told Failla, “he didn’t feel comfortable turning it over to someone else.”

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Ultimately, even charity work proved unsatisfying to Weiland. “The time spent on philanthropy was meaningful in some ways,” he wrote in his diary, “but because I’m not qualified to decide my allocations, I’m unhappy with my ability to decide in the future. In short, I’m disturbed that I work for no one, with no one, and that leaves me empty…

“It’s hard to convey the sense of lack of people and activities and opportunities open to me, given my abilities as a writer, but it is so real to me. The worst part of having so few people is the lack of expectations of me, so there’s a real lack of a sense of being kept on my toes, so to speak. It feels disorienting to be able to do whatever you want, because there’s no expectation most of the time. About the only one I feel is the expectation to stay alive.”

Schaefer went out of town on business, While he was gone, says Failla, Ric became more engaged and optimistic, but when Mike returned, he hit another low. On Thursday night, June 22, 2006, Weiland dined with Schaefer at the BluWater Bistro. When Weiland returned to Failla’s house afterward, “He kept repeating, ‘That’s it, it’s over,’ ” says Failla. “He was completely shattered.” Even though Schaefer and Weiland had split up, they agreed to go to a party together at Tom Powell’s house the following Friday. After that, says Failla, “they weren’t going to see each other again.”

Weiland went to Powell’s party but Schaefer never showed. (Schaefer later explained that he’d stayed away because it was one of many parties during Gay Pride week. “Ric had just left a treatment center for substance abuse. I didn’t think it was a good idea to be going to a bunch of parties where there’d be drinking.”) At the party, Weiland ran into an old acquaintance, an interior designer named David Welch. “I spent the entire evening with him,” says Welch. “We just caught up because we’d known each other for years. And it seemed like one of us was always in a relationship, but I felt like there was always this possibility of a connection. So he was telling me that Michael Failla wanted him to develop some software and he was worried that he was too long out of the business. I told him, ‘You’re going to be fine. It’ll be just like riding a bike for you.’ That seemed to make him feel better, and he said he was looking forward to starting a new venture. I asked him if he was seeing anyone, and he said no.” Around midnight, Welch recalls, Weiland walked him to his car and gave him his phone number. “He said we should get together sometime, and I thought that was nice.”

June 24 was a Saturday. Sometime around 9:30 that morning, Weiland rose at Failla’s place and padded downstairs to put some laundry in the washer. Failla was away at Lake Chelan on business. “My housekeeper Willie said good morning to him and watched him go back upstairs,” says Failla, “not to the guest room where he had been staying for the last month, but to my bed, which he did only on rare occasions.” A few hours later, Weiland reappeared dressed, slipped his clothes into the dryer, and let Willie know he was going home to work.

At Chelan, Failla couldn’t shake a sense of dread. “I kept calling Ric Saturday afternoon, but there was no answer. Ric was notorious for not picking up the phone and turning his cell off. I knew going to this party with Mike was a huge deal for Ric, so I called Tom Powell, and when he told me Mike wasn’t there my heart just sank. I felt like this could be the straw that broke the camel’s back. I canceled my speaking engagement right then and, as soon as I got back to town that night, I asked my partner if he’d heard from Ric, and he hadn’t either. That’s when I got really worried. When I drove by the house at 12:30, both cars were in the garage with the garage door open, which wasn’t like Ric at all. But I told myself that maybe he finally just wanted to spend the night at his own place, and so I went back home.”

On Sunday morning Failla returned to Weiland’s house. He saw an upstairs balcony door open and called Tom Powell, who brought a ladder. Failla climbed up first. Powell heard Failla cry out and scrambled up the ladder. Inside he saw Ric lying face up on the floor with a pistol nestled in the crook between his left arm and chest and his head wreathed in a halo of blood.

The coroner concluded that Weiland had shot himself at about two o’clock the previous afternoon. Weiland left no suicide note, so the opening words of that late journal entry must suffice: “I’ve lost interest in fighting my depression and other emotions. I can’t see how it would end given my circumstances.”

Two years after Ric Weiland’s death, his emotional legacy is still bitterly contested by those who were closest to him in life. Schaefer maintains that at the time of Weiland’s death, he and Ric were still a couple, and media coverage has depicted him as, in effect, the grieving widower. Sharpe and Doyle—the aggrieved ex-partners—insist that depiction misrepresents their late friend.

“Ric considered himself single when he died,” says Failla flatly, and Sharpe concurs. Schaefer sees such differences as inevitable: “When someone wants to commit suicide, they’re going to find the time, place, and means to do it away from anyone who wants to stop them. And then their loved ones look for reasons—or people—to blame, when ultimately there may not have been a single tipping point.”
No such disputes cloud Weiland’s financial legacy. As Sharpe says, in this as in other matters, “Ric worked out everything, down to the last detail.” He left trust funds providing Ben Sharpe, Mike Schaefer, Michael Failla, and Tom Doyle with incomes ranging from $40,000 to $100,000 a year for the rest of their lives—the amounts determined by a formula he’d devised based on how long he’d known each and how close he’d been to them—and made similar provisions for several other friends and relatives. He left most of his estate—reportedly about $180 million—to charity, including $60 million to Stanford University, his undergraduate alma mater, and $65 million to the cause of gay equality. The Pride Foundation received more than $19 million for itself and $46 million to distribute to 10 national gay-rights and AIDS-research organizations. It was the largest single contribution in the history of the movement.

“When you think about it,” Failla muses, “Ric was at the forefront of two of the major cultural revolutions of the last half century, the information revolution and the struggle for gay rights. And he’s obviously still at the center of both.”

On that point, Mike Schaefer concurs. “Ric took a long-term view of his philanthropy,” he says. “I don’t think the fruits are going to show up overnight or even over a couple of years. Ric’s contributions are going to be with us for a long, long time.”

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