The legacy of Bill Gates Sr. was going to be tremendous, even if his son hadn’t been the world’s richest person.
Gates, who died Monday at 94, was smart, generous and deeply committed to helping others and the community that gave his family so many opportunities.
The Bremerton-born lawyer, educated on the G.I. Bill after enlisting during World War II, was a noted civic leader and Seattle’s top tech lawyer before his son, Bill Gates Jr., started Microsoft with Paul Allen.
What particularly distinguished Gates, according to many who knew and loved him, was his integrity and generosity.
The charitable spirit was imparted by Gates and his first wife, Mary, to their three children. It famously blossomed when Gates helped establish and run what’s now the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“They passed that love for community service to all of their children, so that was one of their greatest gifts,” said former Gov. Dan Evans, a close family friend.
Not only did the family launch the world’s largest charitable organization, it also led Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to create the Giving Pledge, to give the majority of their wealth to solve societal problems. Hundreds of the world’s richest people have since signed the pledge, committing more than $1 trillion to philanthropy.
That can be traced back to the lanky son of a Bremerton furniture dealer.
“Bill’s example and Buffett’s example, really stimulated by Bill Senior, can’t be overstated — it’s revolutionary,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science at the University of Washington.
Gates and Evans were among a circle of post-WWII civic leaders who shepherded Seattle’s rise from a small backwater into the thriving home of the world’s most successful software companies. They laid footings for the region’s success — cleaning up pollution, building infrastructure and civic institutions, and nurturing a great research university.
That work is most obvious at the UW, where multiple buildings bear the Gates name, including the William H. Gates Hall housing the law school from which he graduated in 1950.
“He drew a lot of us and other people to support the university,” said Tom Alberg, a Seattle venture capitalist who was mentored by Gates as a young lawyer in the 1970s and 1980s.
Well before Microsoft, Gates was a leading tech lawyer, helping firms such as defibrillator maker Physio-Control.
“He was always super courteous, helpful, respectful — everything you could imagine a really great person would be,” Alberg said.
A great example of Gates’ legal skill and integrity was shared by Starbucks Chairman Emeritus Howard Schultz, in a tribute the UW compiled for Gates’ 90th birthday.
In 1987, Schultz was preparing to buy Starbucks when another businessperson swooped in with a better offer. Desperate, he sought help from his lawyer, Scott Greenburg, who took him down the hall at the firm to consult with Gates.
After listening, Gates marched them across the street to discuss directly with the businessperson.
“I was in awe at what you said next: ‘You are not going to steal this kid’s opportunity. You are going to stand down,’ ” Schultz wrote. “And to my amazement, he did.”
Schultz said the incident stands out “not only because it changed my life and the course of Starbucks. It stands out because in that moment I witnessed what it means to lead with integrity, with value and heart … (Gates) taught me that people can succeed by doing what they believe is right.”
Greenburg, who came from California, said he was struck by the ethical way of doing business when he joined the law firm co-founded by Gates. That included a big emphasis on giving back to the community.
“Bill just encouraged us to go do that, which is exactly the philosophy that led to the Gates Foundation: Do right by doing right,” Greenburg said.
“You almost can’t define the impact that Bill and Mary Gates had,” he said, “with their family, their community and the person who became the richest person in the world but who was always their son and a human being.”
While mourning his loss, the region and state should celebrate the remarkable legacy of Bill Gates Sr. and continue his fine work, making the region and world a better place for all.