William Gates Sr., the father of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and a towering figure in civic life as well as local and global philanthropy, has died at 94, the family said Tuesday. He died Monday at his beach home on Hood Canal, from Alzheimer’s disease.
Gates was a prominent Seattle attorney and the founding partner of one of the region’s best-known law firms, as well as a leading figure in civic and social causes. But it was his son’s revolutionary success in the tech field that made the name “Bill Gates” known the world over. And it launched an entirely different path for the elder Gates when he was nearly 70.
That’s when he became one of the guiding forces behind the William H. Gates Foundation — which later became the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, after his son and daughter-in-law. It is one of the largest private foundations in the world, and has taken a leading role in addressing some of the planet’s biggest challenges, including reducing infant mortality, stamping out polio, and finding an AIDS vaccine.
“Dad lived a long and enormously meaningful life. I never stopped learning from his wisdom, kindness, and humility. Melinda and I owe him a special debt because his commitment to serving the community and the world helped inspire our own philanthropy,” Bill Gates Jr. said in a statement Tuesday. “Although he would be the last person to say it, my father’s compassion and generosity will live on in the foundation he helped build. As I’ve said many times before, my dad was the real Bill Gates. He was all the things I strive to be.”
Those sentiments were echoed by dozens of local civic, political and business leaders who recalled the influential role the elder Gates played in progressive causes that ranged from supporting greater diversity in law schools to fighting against income inequality.
“He represented progress,” said fellow attorney Llewelyn Pritchard, who met Gates in the early 1970s. “In these days of billable hours and sophisticated marketing, what he emphasized was one’s obligation to … the public.”
But Gates was also warmly recalled for other things: his imposing height–6 feet, 7 inches–and his gentle nature; his optimism and humor; his natural curiosity about the world, and his deep, instinctive respect for everyone he met, no matter where they came from.
He believed “that everybody in the world is equal and deserves your compassion and attention,” recalled Seattle attorney Marty Smith, who met Bill Gates Sr. in 1981 at Gates’ firm, then called Shidler McBroom Gates and Baldwin. “He actually knew all the names of the parking attendants in the garage.”
In 1998, Gates Sr. retired from the firm — by then known as Preston Gates & Ellis –but his second career was only getting started.
Four years earlier, the elder Gates had stepped in to help his son manage a growing flood of philanthropic requests. The result was the William H. Gates Foundation, established in 1994. In 2000, it merged with the Gates Learning Foundation to create the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
On the website of the foundation, the elder Gates described how he and Bill Gates Jr. got involved in global health initiatives: “After reading an article that explained that millions of children were dying in poor countries from preventable diseases, my son, Bill, sent me a copy of it with a note that said: ‘Dad, maybe we can do something about this,'” Gates Sr. wrote. “Since then, I have dedicated my life to global issues I spent most of my career knowing nothing about.”
Colleagues and philanthropy experts say Gates Sr. played a critical role both in expanding the foundation’s scale and scope, and in refining the model of expert-led philanthropy.
“I consider Bill Gates Sr. the conscience of the Gates family,” Pablo Eisenberg, a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, told The New York Times. “He was instrumental in not only starting the foundation but growing it, and his motive was that with all that money, you ought to do good.”
Long before he became co-chair of the Gates Foundation, the elder Gates was known for championing the disadvantaged.
As president of both the Seattle/King County and the Washington State Bar associations, he helped guide the group to a goal of equal justice for the poor and disadvantaged. The University of Washington law school —the place where he earned his law degree — has embraced a social justice mission. Its building is named after Gates.
“Bill Gates, Sr., was once quoted as saying, ‘Law is human service of the highest order. Our role as lawyers is to make it possible for people to survive — and thrive — in an extraordinarily complex world,’” said Mario Barnes, the Toni Rembe dean and professor of law at the UW School of Law, in a statement.
Central to his philosophy was the idea that no one is successful on their own, and that a person’s physical comfort and opportunity have almost everything to do with the society into which a person is born. An ardent supporter of greater diversity, Gates Sr. helped create law school scholarships for students of color and raised funds for legal services for the poor.
“Bill Gates Sr. was a champion for our region, and for the things that make this corner of the world so special,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in a statement Tuesday. “He was towering, both figuratively and literally, and leaves behind a legacy of philanthropy, advocacy for higher education and progressive tax reform that can serve as inspiration for our entire region.”
Gates traveled extensively on behalf of the foundation. In 2002, to learn more about the AIDS epidemic, he toured brothels and AIDS clinics in Africa with former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.
William Gates Sr. was born in Bremerton in 1925, the son of a furniture store owner. He graduated from Bremerton High School, earned an Eagle Scout badge and joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. He returned to Seattle after the war to earn an undergraduate and law degree at UW, and was a founding partner of the Seattle law firm that after several permutations still bears his name.
At the UW, Gates met his future wife, college classmate Mary Maxwell. The couple had three children, Kristianne, Bill and Libby, and raised them in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood.
Mary Gates died in 1994. In 1996, the elder Gates married Mimi Gardner, then director of the Seattle Art Museum.
He served from 1997 to 2012 on the UW’s governing body, the Board of Regents, where he was known for asking staffers sharp, perceptive questions. It was a job his
Gates was also known for a dogged work ethic. UW President Ana Mari Cauce, who regarded Gates as a mentor, recalled an early-morning trip to Olympia in 2005 to testify before a legislative committee. “Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I was feeling a little grumpy about how early I had to arrive and be prepared and ready,” Cauce said. But as she arrived at the Capitol, Cauce said, “who was coming out of chambers – having already testified and having arrived even earlier? Bill Gates, Sr.”
Gates lent his name and financial support to an unsuccessful state ballot initiative in 2010 that would have levied an income tax on the state’s richest citizens to support education and health care services. The initiative was defeated by 65% of voters.
In 1998, he helped start the Washington News Council, a nonprofit with a mission of promoting fairness, accuracy and ethics in the news media in the state. He joined the volunteer board and gave a generous startup grant.
Gates published a book in 2009, “Showing up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime.”
In January 2018, on NBC’s “Today” show, Bill Gates Jr. revealed that his father had Alzheimer’s disease. The younger Gates said he was investing $100 million into Alzheimer’s research to look for treatments and a cure.