Bill Gates Sr., 1925-2020: Microsoft co-founder’s father made his own mark on Seattle and the world


Bill Gates Sr. in 2010. Photo via The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bill Gates Sr., a respected lawyer, devoted civic leader, trusted mentor, and influential philanthropist who helped to shape Seattle’s tech industry even before his son co-founded Microsoft, died Monday of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 94.

“My father’s death is a tremendous loss for our family and the many people whose lives he touched. Dad lived a long and enormously meaningful life,” Bill Gates Jr. said in a statement issued by the Gates family.

[RELATED: Read GeekWire’s 2015 profile of Bill Gates Sr.]

“I never stopped learning from his wisdom, kindness, and humility,” he added. “Melinda and I owe him a special debt because his commitment to serving the community and the world helped inspire our own philanthropy. 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.”

In a post on Twitter, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “Bill Gates Sr. is an important part of the Microsoft story; he helped shape our culture, played a vital role in our community, and influenced our philanthropic programs. We send our condolences to the Gates family and gratitude for Bill Sr.’s enduring legacy.”

“It is difficult to overstate what he meant to me, to our family, and to our foundation,” Melinda Gates said on Twitter.

He “was truly one of the world’s most remarkable people,” said Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, where Gates Sr. was a longtime member of the Board of Regents.

People who knew Gates Sr. said they were struck by the loss of someone who was so generous, humble and giving in a time when society is confronted by sometimes overwhelming challenges: a global pandemic, the struggle to address entrenched racial inequities, bitterly divisive politics, and death and destruction from wildfires whose ferocity is linked to climate change.

Marty Smith, a former partner at the law firm Preston Gates & Ellis, and longtime friend of the elder Gates, said memories of Bill Sr. help to guide him during these difficult times.

“He never backed down from a challenge,” Smith said Tuesday. “You don’t back down and you keep optimistic about it and you try to work with the community.”

Smith admired Gates’ ability to bring some levity to stressful situations and his “basic core humanity that ‘saw’ everyone around,” which meant he acknowledged people, whatever their role in the world.

In their reflections on Gates Sr., friends and colleagues struggle to narrow down the attributes they most admired. He was praised for his respect for women and commitment to making sure they were heard and had leadership opportunities. People recounted his ability to carefully listen to others and consider their stories and input.

In an email interview for a 2015 GeekWire profile, Gates Sr. was 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 at the time. “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.”

William Henry Gates II, who became widely known as Bill Gates Sr., was born on Nov. 30, 1925. He transcended his humble origins, growing up in the Navy town of Bremerton, Wash., the son of a furniture store worker. Neither of his parents attended high school. After his own graduation, in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Japan shortly after its surrender in World War II.

Gates Sr. earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in 1949 and a law degree from the UW the next year. He was devoted to the public university, eventually serving on its board of regents for 15 years and helping lead fundraising efforts.

Bill Gates Sr. and Jr. at an event for the University of Washington, Sr.’s beloved alma mater. Photo: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

His early introduction to technology came from some of his legal clients including Redmond’s Physio-Control Co., a pioneer in heart defibrillators that he helped take public. The experience helped spark his passion for supporting and growing the Northwest’s tech-focused economy. Gates Sr. was one of the three founders of the Washington Research Foundation, which aids research institutions in commercializing their discoveries.

In 1996, he helped launch the Technology Alliance, a tech-centered alternative to the more traditional chamber of commerce, which set about proselytizing the power of the field to local leaders. The alliance, in turn, went on to create the Alliance of Angels, one of the region’s most important angel investment networks.

Gates Sr. didn’t shy away from contentious political issues, 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. The 2010 initiative — which was defeated by voters and marked his most notable public failure — pitted him against long-time friends and colleagues, but seemingly without burning any bridges.

In 2000 he helped launch the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was formed through the consolidation of multiple charitable organizations supported by the Gates family and Microsoft. And even before that time, Gates Sr. was coaching his son and daughter-in-law in their charitable works.

In a post Tuesday on his GatesNotes blog, Bill Gates Jr. credited his parents with an unconditional love that made him comfortable enough to eventually leave college and start Microsoft. He said he turned to his father during the early years of the software giant for legal counsel. His dad’s generosity helped shape the values of the Gates Foundation, and influenced his son beyond business and philanthropy.

“My dad had a profoundly positive influence on my most important roles — husband and father,” Gates Jr. wrote. “When I am at my best, I know it is because of what I learned from my dad about respecting women, honoring individuality, and guiding children’s choices with love and respect.”

Friends say Gates Sr. 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.

In his 2009 book, “Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime,” Gates Sr. describes the challenge of giving advice to college graduates.

“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?’”

His answer: Family, friends and public service, in that order.

GeekWire’s Taylor Soper and Kurt Schlosser contributed to this report.





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