Bill Gates, Sr., a beloved civic icon in Seattle, has died at 94. He was a great man of the city’s greatest generation. As his famous son said, in a tribute every father would cherish, “As I’ve said many times before, my dad was the real Bill Gates. He was all the things I strive to be.”
Let me add a footnote or two of tribute.
When Gates was co-chair (along with Patty Stonesifer) of the Gates Foundation in its early days, I used to visit the great man in his favorite Laurelhurst hangout, the Burgermaster at 45th NE and Mary Gates Drive, where he would join the regulars and the joshing waitresses in dispensing the day’s news and gossip. Gates declined to be intimidating, true to the old informal, unpretentious style of civic leaders in those days. It was easy to remember that he was the son of a Bremerton furniture store owner.
I knew Gates cared a lot about local journalism, so 11 years ago I screwed up the courage to go and see him and ask for financial support for the fledgling Crosscut.com, which I had launched in 2007. We were broke, writers were on half-rates, I was working without pay and my old business partner from Seattle Weekly, Mike Crystal, was our only employee, working on the come.
Naturally I put up a bold front before the grand old man, now ensconsed in the Gates Foundation offices on Eastlake. After a while, he said with his usual eye-twinkle, “So what do you want from me?” I stumbled around and came up with a figure, and Gates said he’d have to get back to me. But not a No.
Time passed, and when I first heard back from an assistant at the Gates Foundation, the figure being considered was $1 million, five times what I hoped for. More time passed and the figure was reduced to $200,000, which turned out to be a figure for the next three years. We were rescued. If you admire Crosscut.com, as I do, remember that Bill Gates Sr. saved it, made it happen. He made a lot happen, particularly at his heart’s desire, the University of Washington.
In those days, Gates was the ambassador to Seattle’s civic and cultural causes, the man to see and the one who knew what was worth supporting. That role was eventually diminished (as I could sense when our grant was cut back), as the Gates Foundation professionalized and got more serious about its global health and development missions.
I was careful when I’d see “Senior” to thank him for his rescue mission, his instinctual civic-mindedness. But I never thanked him enough for all he and his family have done for our city (not to mention the world). He always brushed off compliments. None of us were ever able to thank him enough.