Bill Gates Sr. has offered lessons in thoughtfulness, honesty, leadership, humility and generosity, and helped millions along the way.
Sometimes you are lucky enough to meet someone who totally changes your life. That happened to me.
The person I met was Bill Gates Sr. It was 1998. I had just founded the Washington News Council and was seeking volunteer board members. Bill faxed in an application form. Where we asked for relevant experience, he wrote simply: “A lot of experience.”
I actually thought it was a joke from one of my friends, so I dialed the number on the form. Bill answered. “Uh, is this your application, Mr. Gates?” I stammered. “Yes,” he replied. I was stunned. I had never met him before.
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He said he strongly supported the WNC’s mission of promoting fairness, accuracy and ethics in the news media in this state. By joining our nonprofit board, he gave us instant credibility. He sent a generous startup grant and continued to help fund us for 15 years. When he believed in something, I learned, he gave it his full and loyal support.
He once told me that if people did something nice for you, you should thank them at least three times. Knowing that his 92nd birthday was Nov. 30, I contacted his assistant, who arranged a lunch meeting. I wanted to thank him again — and also tell him what valuable lessons he had taught me.
When we sat down for lunch, I said that his 2009 book, “Showing Up for Life,” co-written with Mary Ann Mackin, was one of my all-time favorites. It’s full of great wisdom, wonderful anecdotes and good lessons for life — including the value of hard work, commitment, persistence, courage, open-mindedness, honesty, trust, sharing, gratitude and leadership.
On my 60th birthday in 2006, I recalled, he wrote me a letter that said: “Becoming sixty is serious stuff.” Regarding the news council, he wrote: “You do have and deserve a very large sense of personal satisfaction for what you have done.” A lesson in thoughtfulness.
Over lunch, I showed him a copy of the WNC’s 2005 Gridiron West Dinner program, when we “roasted and toasted” Bill and his wife, Mimi. It was held at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, with a crowd of more than 500 people. He had attended all of our previous Gridiron Dinners, and knew that we would poke gentle fun at them in songs and tributes. He loved the evening. A lesson in humility.
I had also brought a photo album of the event, and showed him pictures of our WNC board singing a parody of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” We had changed the words to “Grantmaker, Grantmaker, make us a grant!” He got a big laugh out of that. A lesson in generosity.
He looked at photos of our “roasters,” including Dan Evans and Jim Ellis. When Jim spoke, I recalled, he and Bill had both teared up. They were friends and law partners for decades. Two giants of our community who did so much good for the city, the state — and the world. A lesson in friendship.
He saw pictures of our Cabaret Productions professional singers, who sang parody songs, including “If I Had a Rich Son.” He laughed a lot at that. And when his three kids took the stage for their remarks, Bill’s son briefly sang a verse of “If I Were a Rich Man” — which brought down the house. A lesson in not taking yourselves too seriously.
I reminded him of the time when he said he’d have to miss a WNC meeting because he was flying to London. Why London? I had asked. “My son is being knighted by the Queen,” he said. I had replied: “Well, THAT’S a lame excuse!” He laughed again. A lesson that family always comes first.
I recalled that when he gave us the Municipal League’s 2011 “Organization of the Year” award at a banquet, I had seated him next to my father, who was then 95 years old. I told the crowd: “I thought my Dad might give Bill some tips on how to raise a successful son.” They both roared. A lesson in the value of humor.
When our lunch ended, I told Bill that he had changed my life — among millions of lives that he and the Gates Foundation have changed and saved all over the world.
Happy birthday, Bill. And thanks again, from all of us. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from you, and there’s no way we can ever thank you enough. But we can try.