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Native son sets St. Louis atwitter 'He's always seen life a little differently,' uncle says of Twitter creator.

Native son sets St. Louis atwitter 'He's always seen life a little differently,' uncle says of Twitter creator.

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One night in mid-September, a man named Jack Dorsey stood on the pitcher's mound at Busch Stadium, clutching a baseball in his left hand, about to realize a childhood dream.

The Cardinals were playing the Cubs. And he was there to toss out the first pitch.

What a sight it was, as 46,000 fans shrugged and asked each other: "Who's Jack Dorsey?"

Hard to blame them. After all, Dorsey isn't among the best-known tech celebrities. But it's difficult these days not to know about Twitter, the social networking phenomenon he helped create. Dorsey may very well be the most important St. Louis native you've never heard of.

And considering the power of Twitter, where millions of people communicate in short bursts, one has to assume that Dorsey's anonymity is by choice: "He could build himself into an idol, 140 characters at a time if he wanted to," said Matt Carlson, assistant professor of communications at St. Louis University.

Fortunately for Dorsey, he's quite well known in tech circles - a must, given his current push to start a new company using Twitter's technology. He won't offer details, but says the venture will deal with the health care and financial service sectors, and will involve St. Louis.

While men such as Apple founder Steve Jobs seek the limelight, Dorsey has always kept to the quiet edges of life. He's stylish, without being flashy. He loves to sail and enjoys driving. But he has neither boat nor car. He's never owned a television.

He maintains apartments in San Francisco and New York, but shies away from material possessions - saying he'd rather not waste brain power worrying about them. His most prized possession? A tote bag he bought 10 years ago for $89.

If they made a movie about his life, you get the distinct feeling he'd be played by John Cusack, an actor who's made a career of playing quirky characters.

Low-key, but driven

It's always been like this for Dorsey, who has never really been the typical anything.

His uncle Dan Dorsey, a Catholic priest in Cincinnati, remembers a visit some 22 years ago, when his nephew proudly handed over a business card. It read, simply: Jack P. Dorsey, consultant.

"How many 10-year-olds have that? He's always seen life a little differently," his uncle said.

Jack Dorsey remembers the card. But he has no idea what, exactly, he was planning to offer his advice upon. He just knew he was ready for something.

"I was eager to grow up and get started," Dorsey said. "I knew I'd be working and working very hard some day."

Although Dorsey hasn't lived in St. Louis since 2003, he returns several times a year to visit friends and family - his parents and two brothers still live here.

It was the September visit that gave the city a chance to claim him as one of its own.

There was the trip to Webster University, where he was named the 2009 Person of the Year. He spent time with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who gave him a key to the city. And there was the ceremonial first pitch.

His parents, who still live in Compton Heights, were there every step of the way.

"I was nervous for him. But I was really happy with the whole weekend," said Marcia Dorsey, his mother. "It was like St. Louis acknowledged him."

Indeed, it would be hard to top the praise lavished on Dorsey by Webster's Benjamin Ola Akande, dean of the communications school, who compared him to revolutionary inventors Johannes Gutenberg and Alexander Graham Bell. "In every generation, we produce individuals who come along and make life better for those around them," Akande said.

But does Dorsey really fit in the history books alongside Gutenberg, whose printing press brought the written word to the masses? That's a tough one to answer when you consider Twitter has been around fewer than four years.

Building a business

Some communication experts stop well short of putting Dorsey and his partners on such a lofty shelf, saying they simply found a new way to use existing technology. Twitter allows users to post brief - 140-character maximum - missives or "tweets," most of which essentially say: This is what's on my mind right now.

"None of this is as revolutionary as the printing press," said Steve Jones, professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's evolutionary. I'd say it's probably more analogous to the invention of the Post-It note."

It's not even certain, yet, that the company - which produces no revenue - could survive without being propped up by venture capitalists, who have pumped more than $150 million into the firm. The latest round of funding valued the company at $1 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Dorsey, who resigned last year as Twitter's chief executive and took the role of chairman, routinely faces questions about the company's financial prospects. And he routinely deflects them with comparisons to Google, another company that focused first on building a strong network before worrying about profits.

But even if Dorsey isn't the next Gutenberg, there's no denying he has played a major role in reshaping today's social landscape. Nearly 19 million people used Twitter at some point last month, according to data from the Nielsen company. Among them were celebrities, politicians and corporations all looking for new ways to reach people.

A ghost through college

Aside from a six-year stint in Colorado, Dorsey spent most of his younger years in St. Louis. It was after he moved back to St. Louis, and into Compton Heights, that he developed what he recalls as his first true love.

It was 1991. He was a freshman at Bishop DuBourg High School. He remembers walking around the city, falling in love with the way everything moved.

That love would later spawn a fascination with the coordinated movements of taxicabs, couriers and emergency vehicles throughout a city. Their constant need to provide location updates formed the foundation for Twitter.

Old friends remember Dorsey as a quiet kid, with a love of music, whose eyes lit up when talking about computers and something called the Internet. He was, in the words of his good friend Tim Brouk, one of "the more popular unpopular guys in our class."

Dorsey shows up on three pages in his senior yearbook. One identifies him as Jack Dempsey. Another lists one of his defining moments - the day he dressed up as Ed Haessig, the school's religion and tennis instructor.

"That was kind of a big high school moment for him in terms of status," said Brouk, a newspaper reporter in Indiana.

Funny thing is, Haessig was at a loss when word began spreading around campus that a former DuBourg student was behind Twitter. "I had to go back to an old yearbook to jolt any memory of him," Haessig said.

It's a theme that carried over into the two-plus years he spent at the University of Missouri at Rolla, where he started work on a still-unfinished degree in computer science. The school's

public relations staff recently asked Dorsey to name a couple of professors - in case anyone came along trying to learn more about his past. Neither of the two he selected could remember him.

"The name rings a bell, but I can't bring a face to mind," said Arlan Dekock, the former dean of the school of management and information systems.

The same cannot be said for Dorsey's first employer, Jim

McKelvey, president of Mira Digital Publishing in St. Louis. Dorsey was still in high school, but McKelvey said he quickly realized the teen had a lot to offer with his programming skills and understanding of the Internet.

Despite his inexperience, Dorsey was soon supervising full-time workers. Projects were designed for him.

"I was the president of the company and he was the summer intern. But that doesn't necessarily mean I wasn't the one running errands," said McKelvey, who recently agreed to join Dorsey's new venture.

Image change?

Today, life for Dorsey has become more complicated and demanding.

He travels from coast to coast, lining up investors as he works to get his new company off the ground. Gone is the nose ring. It's been replaced by worries about how he's perceived by the world around him.

It's a transition that's going well, said Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures in New York, one of the original investors in Twitter and a member of its board.

Wilson uses terms such as "craftsmanlike" when describing Dorsey's attention to detail in the way he presents himself in social and professional settings. He suggests that the rather anonymous version of Dorsey could soon be a thing of the past.

"I think you'll see Jack being a little bit more out there in the future," Wilson said. "He's built a lot of confidence with Twitter."

Maybe that's why Dorsey spent nearly three hours the night before that Cardinals game, practicing his pitches with a couple of friends at a small lighted baseball field in Clayton. His mind was a jumble of memories and worries - not the least of which was his fear that he'd put the pitch in the dirt.

He remembered summer nights spent with his grandmother, listening to Cardinals games on the radio and dreaming of what it would be like to play on a big league field. He thought of his family. And the thousands of strangers watching him represent his company.

"It all just kind of boiled up into that one moment," said Dorsey, who ended up putting the pitch high and outside. "It could have been better. But I was happy."

Life for Dorsey has become more complicated and demanding as he works to line up investors for his new company

Your guide to the St. Louis tweets. Follow P-D staffers and the latest area trends on Twitter. STLtoday.com/twitter

Jack Dorsey

Born - St. Louis, Nov. 19, 1976

Age - 32

Home - Divides time between San Francisco

and New York

Profession - Founded social networking site Twitter with partners Evan Williams and Biz Stone.

Favorite things about St. Louis - Imo's Pizza, the Arch, Missouri Botanical Garden, City Museum

Key dates in the path to Twitter

1991 - Jack Dorsey's family returns to St. Louis from Colorado. He develops a fascination with the inner workings of the city.

1995 - Dorsey graduates from Bishop DuBourg High School and starts college at the University of Missouri-Rolla.

1997 - Dorsey transfers to New York University and goes to work for a dispatching service, writing software that tracks vehicles using the concept of "status updates." It would form the basis for his future work.

1999 - Restless and bursting with ideas, Dorsey drops out of NYU a semester shy of graduation and moves to the West Coast.

2002 - Dorsey returns to St. Louis to work for his father. Starts Saintslist.com, a local version of Craigslist, which hadn't made it here yet.

2004 - Dorsey moves back to San Francisco and eventually joins Odeo, a podcasting firm where he meets future Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone.

2006 - He convinces Odeo's founders to give him time to develop the idea for Twitter.

2007 - Twitter is spun off from Odeo. Dorsey is chief executive officer.

2008 - Dorsey steps down as CEO and takes the chairman's job, allowing him to focus on another, still undisclosed, venture.

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