SEATTLE — William Gates Sr., the father of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has died at 94, the family said Tuesday.
Gates was a prominent Seattle attorney and the founding partner of one of the region’s best-known law firms. But it was his son’s fortune 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 — later renamed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, after his son and daughter-in-law. It is one of the largest private foundations in the world.
“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,” his son 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.”
On the foundation’s website, 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.”
Even before he became co-chair of the Gates Foundation, the elder Gates was known for championing the poor. 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.
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 imposing man at 6 feet, 6 inches, Gates traveled extensively on behalf of the foundation. In 2002, to learn more about the AIDS epidemic, he and his second wife, Mimi, 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 the badge of Eagle Scout 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 the UW, and was a founding partner of the Seattle firm Preston, Gates & Ellis.
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 on the UW’s governing body, the Board of Regents, from 1997 to 2012, where he was known for asking staffers sharp, perceptive questions. It was a job his first wife, Mary, held from 1975 to 1993. During his tenure, he 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 new cures and treatments.
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