“Without me, you wouldn’t be here.”
That was the opening line of a speech that Bill Gates Sr. gave many years ago at an annual meeting of Microsoft employees. It was meant to be funny — and certainly got a laugh — and it was intended to inspire a sense of gratitude that hopefully led to donations to the United Way, a charity championed by Gates.
But the truth is that Gates Sr., who turns 90 on Monday, could deliver the same message to people across the Northwest, and beyond, although his legendary humility would never allow it.
Because while Gates Sr. is recognized internationally as the father of the co-founder of Microsoft, his impact on the Seattle region has been huge — even if you completely discount the effects of his parenthood.
“If you look at who have been the most influential people over the last 50 years, he’s definitely in the top 10,” said Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Seattle-based Technology Alliance. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Many people don’t realize that Gates, formerly a prominent attorney, was involved in the region’s tech industry even before Microsoft got its start, and that his interest and support for the sector continued independently of his son’s enterprise.
Or that Gates Sr. has been a tremendous civic leader, advocating for controversial causes including serving on the local and national boards of Planned Parenthood before Roe v. Wade, and campaigning as the face of a state income-tax initiative in Washington state. And there’s his leadership for the world’s largest philanthropic trust, plus supporting numerous other global health, education and arts charities, as well as his devotion to the University of Washington and 15 years on its Board of Regents.
“His fingerprints are all over so many things,” said Jim Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco, on whose board Gates Sr. served. “The list goes on and on. It’s pretty tough to find something that doesn’t have his stamp on it somewhere along the line.”
But those lists represent just a small portion of Gates’ professional and charitable activities, and they only tell a fraction of his story. Because while his service on boards and his work leading fundraisers pack an epic CV, what most impresses the people who’ve worked and volunteered alongside Bill Sr. isn’t found on his resume.
When family, colleagues and friends begin a story about Sr.’s public accomplishments, it’s not long before they sidetrack into very personal anecdotes that illustrate his deep humanity. Bill Sr. was the first to call after their wife’s ovarian surgery. Despite being a high-powered corporate attorney, he personally handled their adoption case. He knew by name the parking attendants in his firm’s garage, and would inquire about their families.
As he gets ready to mark his 90th birthday with a big celebration at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates Sr. is lauded as a mentor, a role model and a trusted adviser, embodying noble traits that many aspire to — including his son.
“My dad is a little more cautious, wise, not as over-the-top quite so quickly,” said Bill Gates Jr., the Microsoft co-founder, in an interview with GeekWire. “There’s a lot about my dad that I and others would love to have come more naturally.”
This fall, in anticipation of the senior Gates’s birthday, friends collected 120 stories from people whose lives he has touched and compiled them into a book. On Nov. 16, they presented the gift that recounts anecdotes and lessons learned, including contributions from UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska, venture capitalist Tom Alberg and dozens more.
But while others savor his words of wisdom, Gates is self-deprecating when sharing his thoughts for the next generation of community leaders.
“I doubt my advice is any more sage than the next person, but one thing I propose is for people to find a cause they care about and make time to show up for it,” Gates Sr. said in an email interview. “In my view, it is essential that tomorrow’s leaders get involved in public service early on. Whether that’s volunteering at a food bank, tutoring math students or serving on a local board, contributing to your community is important work — and it happens to be incredibly satisfying.”
Those who know Gates Sr. well call out his integrity, authenticity, sincerity, humor, approachability, thoughtfulness and passion that have not only won him legions of admirers, but also made him highly effective in his work-related, civic and philanthropic endeavors.
“He is very fair and even-handed in all his activities,” said Dan Evans, who served three terms as Washington’s governor and as a U.S. senator. “I don’t think he really has an enemy.” Gates Sr. believes in “doing the best things you can do, and trying through persuasion and work to get people to join in,” Evans said.
It’s a quality not seen as much in Seattle these days as the city splinters and struggles with its own growing pains, sparked in part by the tech industry that Gates Sr. originally helped to foster.
Early days of Northwest tech
William Henry Gates II, now widely known as Bill Gates Sr., grew up across Puget Sound from Seattle in the Navy town of Bremerton, Wash.
His father owned, then sold and worked in, a furniture store. Neither of his parents went to high school. A year after his graduation from Bremerton High School in 1943, Gates Sr. received a letter ordering him to active duty. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, completed officer candidate school and was shipped to Japan shortly after its surrender. He traveled to Hokkaido, the nothernmost island of Japan, and a war-torn Tokyo.
The Army provided Gates Sr. with one of his first opportunities to consider our shared humanity, and its ability to unite people regardless of their different backgrounds.
Gates then returned to the Northwest and the UW to earn an undergraduate degree in 1949 and a law degree the next year.
“My dad expanded his horizons way beyond what he grew up with,” Gates Jr. said.
Gates’ first wife, Mary Maxwell, was a fellow UW Husky and they had three children together: Kristi, Bill (known by family and close friends as “Trey” in reference to the three card in a playing-card deck) and Libby.
Early in his law career, Gates Sr. and his law firm became involved in the region’s nascent tech industry, and that involvement only strengthened and expanded over time.
Gates’ early legal clients included Redmond’s Physio-Control Co., a pioneer in heart defibrillators led by Dr. Karl William Edmark, and Intermec Corp., an Everett-based business and creator of the most widely used barcode symbols and the hand-held barcode scanner. Gates was on the board of directors for both companies.
Gates helped take Physio-Control public in 1971 — the same year that drivers on SeaTac’s stretch of Highway 99 were confronted by an infamous billboard asking “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn out the lights” erected in response to a spate of layoffs at Boeing, then the region’s largest employer. It was also four years before Gates Jr. and Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft, a company that would eventually reshape the Seattle region and the larger tech ecosystem.
The success of Physio-Control was “the beginning of that positive feedback of people starting a technology company and doing well and going on to found new companies, and to serve as an angel investor to others,” said Malarkey, of the Technology Alliance.
The angel investing of Gates Sr. and his peers, she said, had “a spirit of community building.”
And his dad’s engagement in tech ventures helped fan his son’s curiosity about the field.
“As a sixth grader, he had me go down and meet with Dr. Edmark and [Physio’s president and CEO] Hunter Simpson, and I wrote a long report about Physio-Control,” Gates Jr. said. Gates later worked with some employees at Intermec to develop the tape reader that he and Allen used at Traf-O-Data, their pre-Microsoft venture created to analyze traffic-counting data.
Stoking the tech engine
A few years after Physio-Control went public, Gates Sr. and others eager to grow the new economy began working with other angel investors to support the region’s burgeoning biotech and IT industries.
Along with Simpson and venture capitalist Tom Cable, the trio founded Washington Research Foundation.
The nonprofit helps research institutions, including the UW, turn their discoveries into commercial products and invests in promising innovations. Established in 1981, the foundation was one of the first organizations of its kind nationally, and has secured more than 110 product licenses, earning more than $350 million for the UW. Gates brought his legal acumen to the project, drafting legislation that granted the organization tax-exempt status.
In 1975, Gates Jr. and Allen started Microsoft, though it wasn’t until the 1980s that the company began taking off with the public release of MS-DOS, Microsoft’s partnership with IBM on the early personal computer, and the introduction of Word and other Office products.
As the younger Gates was trying to grow his company, he came to his dad for advice on non-software decisions and relied on his parents for help recruiting talented employees, particularly those older than himself. Bill and Mary were adept at connecting people and integrating them into social networks.
“I was mono-maniacally focused on Microsoft and quite a bit younger than some of these experienced people we were bringing in,” Gates Jr. said. “Even when I wanted to hire Steve Ballmer, [to get him] to drop out of business school, he was a year in, my parents had him over and were helpful.”
But while Microsoft was growing, computer technology was still a foreign field to many. People didn’t fully appreciate the value of the sector and the role that IT and biotech was to play in everyone’s lives.
So in 1996, Gates Sr. helped launch the Technology Alliance, a tech-centered alternative to the more traditional chamber of commerce, which set about proselytizing the power of IT to local leaders. Part of their mission was visiting other tech hubs — Silicon Valley, Boston, North Carolina — and deconstructing what made them successful in order to try to replicate their strengths in the Northwest.
Gates Sr., who many say has a striking ability to see to the core of an issue and ask the right questions at just the right time, wanted to figure out a way to deliberately cultivate the technology field.
His idea was “maybe we should be smart about this and not rely on happenstance,” said Marty Smith, a former partner at the Preston Gates & Ellis law firm and currently co-founder of MetaJure, a legal technology company.
The Technology Alliance went on to create the Alliance of Angels, one of the region’s most important angel investment networks; as well as Ada Developer’s Academy, a unique and intensive computer training program for women.
“This city would be very different without Bill having lived here,” Smith said, “and that’s nothing to do with Microsoft or Trey.”
But as Gates Jr. and others explained, his dad wasn’t driven so much by a fondness for technology, but by his love of education and the University of Washington, and his desire to promote strong communities and a robust economy. Technology, it seemed, could be harnessed to bolster many of his favorite causes.
“My dad is not a technology person,” Gates said. “He got drawn into that, but he was about, ‘How is this a great community to live in? How is it educating students really well?’”
‘Justice and fairness for all’
Before technology and global health, even before Bill Jr. and his sisters, Gates Sr. was focused on the law.
He earned his law degree and passed the bar exam in 1950. He became heavily involved in the law’s professional associations, including serving as president of the local and the state bar associations, holding multiple leadership positions with the American Bar Association, participating in numerous court commissions, and other posts.
The legal world was a natural fit with some of Gates’ key values.
“This man has the most deeply rooted sense of justice and fairness for all people,” said Connie Kravas, the UW’s leader of fundraising and promotions.
Fellow attorneys said he had a great aptitude for the law, possessing a suite of five skills that makes him unusually talented in the field: He’s an analytical, strategic thinker; empathetic to his clients; has a broad knowledge base; is a great listener and can put himself in his opponent’s shoes; and, because he has all of these skills, is also well respected by other litigators and judges.
“Bill is one of the very few people I’ve seen that has all five,” Smith said. “He was one of the most respected lawyers in town.”
His son is among those who have benefited from Gates Sr.’s legal skills. Beginning in the 1990s, Microsoft faced a series of legal challenges stemming from government accusations that the company engaged in anti-competitive practices. Gates Jr. sought advice from his dad in the matter.
“We had a legal dispute early in Microsoft where I felt sure we were right and we ought to stay the course,” Gates Jr. said. “He helped reinforce that.”
Again, friends and colleagues cite Gates Sr.’s personal actions and demeanor among his greatest professional accomplishments.
Tom Alberg had just begun practicing law in Seattle when he met Gates Sr., who is 15 years older than himself. In the 1960s, Alberg was a local leader among young attorneys and they raised the call for equal rights for black and white lawyers. They needed support from Gates, who held sway in the legal community.
“Bill treated us like equals,” Alberg said. “He wasn’t like, ‘You young kids.’ He was very gracious and listened to what we had to say, at least, and probably gave us good advice.
“He was always very open to younger people and younger lawyers,” said Alberg, who went on to start the venture capital firm Madrona Venture Group and serves on the executive committee for Technology Alliance.
And Gates Sr. was more humane than one might expect a leader at a top firm to be. Colleagues tell stories of the respect with which he treated younger associates. He supported them when they asked for leaves to travel and start families.
Understanding the value of women
Perhaps most striking, Gates Sr. appears to have always regarded women as his equals, despite the fact that he joined the workforce at a time when America was just tuning in to June and Ward Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver.
“The firm was incredibly supportive of women,” said Connie Collingsworth, general counsel at the Gates Foundation and former partner at Preston Gates & Ellis, which is now K&L Gates.
His support was genuine, said Collingsworth, who met Gates Sr. in 1990. “It wasn’t that he was saying, ‘I’m going to meet a quota or a mission agenda point.’ It was subtle. He just did what he thought was right.”
When Gates Sr. helped start the Technology Alliance, a groundbreaking organization addressing the issues of a male-dominated field, he chose Susannah Malarkey to head the group. Malarkey, by her own admission, wasn’t experienced in tech, but Gates saw her potential.
“Bill was way ahead of his time,” Malarkey said. “He understood the value of women when most men of his generation were pretty old school.”
Not surprisingly, friends say Gates applauded the achievements of both of his wives: first Mary, who served as UW regent for 18 years and engaged in numerous civic causes before she passed away in 1994, and then Mimi Gardner, former director of the Seattle Art Museum.
“He was totally comfortable in his own skin and celebrated women accomplishing things,” Malarkey said, noting the parallels between Gates Sr. and his son in this regard. “Bill celebrates Melinda’s success in the same way that Bill and Mary supported one another.”
Gates Sr.’s mother was the one who seeded his respect for women, Gates Jr. said. Gates Sr.’s mother, Lillian Elizabeth Rice, was very sharp, despite having only an eighth-grade education. Gates Sr. was also close to his first mother-in-law, Adelle Maxwell, whom Gates Sr. has described as independent and insightful.
“My two grandmothers, not to insult my grandfathers, were significantly more talented than my grandfathers,” Gates Jr. said. They “were both very smart.”
Trying to level the playing field
Gates Sr.’s quest for fairness and access to opportunities extended beyond his personal interactions into broader social causes, from fundraising at the UW to his leadership at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
But his pursuit of a more level playing field led to Gates Sr.’s most visible public defeat: the failure of a voter initiative to establish an income tax for Washington’s richest residents.
Washington arguably has the most regressive tax structure in the nation, meaning the tax burden here is disproportionately higher for the poor than the rich. Gates and others sought to correct that disparity with a 2010 ballot measure, one that would have pumped funds into state education. The initiative would have created an income tax for individuals earning more than $200,000 annually and for couples with incomes of $400,000.
The measure pitted Gates against long-time friends Dan Evans and Tom Alberg; Steve Ballmer, who in 2000 succeeded Gates Jr. as CEO of Microsoft; Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos; as well as many other tech leaders. Both sides spent millions on the campaign, which supporters lost in a vote of 36 percent in favor and 64 percent against the initiative.
My dad “had a firm conviction” that the income tax was the right solution and “he thought a lot of people would come along and support him,” Gates Jr. said. “Even as that coalition ended up being quite small compared to what he hoped for, he stuck with it.”
And he didn’t hold a grudge against those who saw the issue differently — a trait he displayed on countless occasions.
Opposition over the initiative “hasn’t affected our 55-year-old friendship. It survives easy things like that,” said Evans, a Republican who while governor had twice pushed for a state income tax as part of a broader package of tax reform.
In the five years since the initiative failed, the problem of income inequality has only become more exacerbated. Particularly in the greater Seattle area, an ongoing tech boom continues to push housing prices upward and some residents and leaders fear that lower- and middle-class workers will keep getting priced out of the city — a downside to the success of an IT economy that Gates Sr. surely would not have wanted.
“Seattle is certainly doing well at tech jobs at the moment,” Gates Jr. said. “Some people think too well.”
But Gates Sr. hopes that others will take on the challenge of working toward better communities in his home town and globally.
“[W]hat really makes Washington state great — and the rest of the Pacific Northwest for that matter — [are] the people. I am amazed by how many people have stepped up to help transform the local community into a global hub of partnership, big ideas and the determination necessary to solve tough problems at home and in poor countries,” Gates Sr. said. “I don’t see any signs of that letting up.”
From a box of letters to a billion-dollar foundation
While Gates Sr. wasn’t able to help usher in an income tax, he’s had other avenues for his vision of a fairer world, namely his role co-running the multi-billion-dollar Gates Foundation.
“He’s just the heart and soul of the foundation,” said Collingsworth, general counsel for the organization. “He’s there every day representing the family.”
And he brings with him an enthusiasm that’s helpful when tackling intractable problems of disease and poverty.
“When I come into the office, I am blown away by the signs of progress — both large and small — that prove the world is getting better,” Gates Sr. said. “Earlier this year, for example, the country Nigeria celebrated going a full year without a case of polio. I remember when my children were young and polio was a real terror in the United States. To think that we have wiped out 99 percent of that awful disease — and that the job will, in all likelihood, be finished in just a couple years — is rather remarkable.”
The foundation officially formed in 2000 through the consolidation of multiple charitable organizations supported by the Gates family and Microsoft. But in fact, Gates Sr. was playing an essential role in this arena well before the charity coalesced.
Evans recalled a time he was staying with Bill and Mary at their home in Palm Springs, Calif. Gates Sr. had a big box of letters from people seeking financial support from his son for a variety of causes.
“Bill was the one who said, ‘Son, let me take a look at these,’” Evans said. “That was the beginning of the Gates Foundation.” Gates Sr. perused the inquiries, sorted them and made recommendations to his son.
“Bill counseled him, ‘It’s time for you to begin thinking about what you can give back,’” Evans said.
The Seattle-based foundation has grown to nearly 1,400 employees worldwide helping manage and distribute grants from a trust that totals $41.3 billion. The organization has multiple initiatives, including global health, with an emphasis on vaccines, AIDS and malaria research; alleviating poverty and hunger in developing countries; and in the United States, the foundation is investing in high school and higher education, with a local focus on early learning.
Friends say that Gates Sr. lives the foundation’s credo that “every life has equal value.”
“He has this ability to recognize the humanity in everybody,” said Smith, Gates Sr.’s former colleague. Whether he’s interacting with an HIV-positive child in India or a head of state, “to Bill there really isn’t a difference. To him they’re each human lives worthy of your attention and time.”
Since it began, the Gates Foundation has issued $34.5 billion in grants. Gates Sr. is a co-chair of the foundation, with direction from his son and daughter-in-law and Warren Buffett, who has contributed billions of dollars to the foundation.
Gates Sr. “has been a steady influence right from the beginning,” said Dr. Bill Foege, who recently retired as senior fellow for the Foundation’s Global Health Program and served as former director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control. “He provides that sense of security.”
In the late 1990s, Gates Sr. met with Foege, who came up with the strategy for eradicating small pox worldwide, to get his advice on the most worthwhile, promising strategies for addressing global health issues. Foege encouraged them to pursue vaccines, a path they were already exploring.
Working with Gates Sr. has provided Foege with some interesting insight into his own field.
“He has demonstrated to me that lawyers are more important than doctors when it comes to global health,” Foege said. It turns out that in some cases, changing the law can do more than medicine to make widespread strides in health outcomes.
Global health needs to be “based on good science and the best results are based on good management,” Foege said, “and management is often tied to the rule of law.”
Because of its massive wealth, the organization is powerful and wields significant influence on public policy at home and abroad, and its investments in impoverished countries can change their very cultures — for good and, in certain cases, some would say ill.
Critics have raised concerns about the foundation’s transparency and outsized-role in shaping the debate over public education in America. They admonish the group for favoring technologically-based solutions, including the use of fertilizers to boost agricultural output in developing countries.
At the same time, the foundation has fostered great achievements through immunizations that are curbing polio and other diseases, empowering women through support for family planning, funding teacher training and expanding online access to education.
“When I started medical school, which was almost 60 years ago at the University of Washington, I knew I was interested in global health,” Foege said, but he couldn’t find three other people on campus who shared his passion.
“In the past 15 years, this has become the most popular subject on campus after campus. The difference occurred in about 1999,” Foege said, “when the Gates family took this on as an issue.”
A roller-skating Santa at 6-feet, 7-inches tall
Towards the end of his 2009 book, “Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime,” Gates Sr. ruminates on the challenge of imparting meaningful advice to college grads.
He writes, “Every time I am preparing to give a commencement address I go around for weeks asking myself and anyone else who will listen, ‘What’s most important for the graduates to hear about what matters in life?’”
He comes to the answer: Family, friends and public service, in that order.
In addition to his love of the law, the UW, the foundation and all his other causes and crusades, Gates Sr. — by his own admission and according to others — has strived to put family and friends first.
For Harold Kawaguchi, a former officer for Physio-Control and chairman of the board for Stratos Group, that commitment was clear from Gates’ help when he was adopting children.
Gates Sr. was his personal attorney for the adoptions. “He didn’t hand it off, he did it personally,” Kawaguchi said. “He retained his personal touch even for things that wouldn’t seem meaningful from a big business standpoint.”
For Smith, who worked at Gates’ firm, his boss was eager to celebrate the birth of his three daughters, and was the first to call after his wife had surgery.
“He was a mentor for me as a lawyer. He was a role model in terms of getting involved in the community and a facilitator in my doing that. He has been an incredibly good friend and listener,” Smith said. “He’s just a person who’s been there in a way in my life that I never had growing up.”
Former governor Evans remembers how much fun he’s had with Gates Sr.
Their long-standing bridge group would go out for dinners every few months, hosted by the two losing players. One such occasion was co-hosted by Gates Sr., who devised a treasure hunt that sent the 12 diners across Seattle as they solved clues leading everywhere from an oyster bar in the old Olympic Hotel to Ivar’s restaurant on the waterfront. It was a tremendous effort and a night they all cherished, Evans said
Evans also recalled a Christmas party the Gates held when their children were young. The Evans family arrived to find a roller-skating party. Gates Sr., at six feet, seven inches tall, was dressed as Santa Claus. On roller skates.
“He was far too tall for the Santa Claus suit, so the bottom of the pants were halfway up his calves,” Evans said. As Gates skated around and around, the children scrambled after him, “like a bunch of little bees.”
But Gates hasn’t reserved his generosity only for those with whom he is closest. Malarkey recounted a story of a young man who’d worked at the Gates Foundation and was graduating from an East Coast law school.
The man got a call from Gates Sr. who explained he was thinking about his graduation and was concerned that he didn’t have much family to celebrate the day with him. So he and Mimi flew out for his commencement.
“He describes big Bill, leaning against a tree, watching him graduate,” Malarkey said.
“He is a really, really special man.”