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William Gates Sr., a guiding hand of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dies at 94

William H. Gates Sr., with his son, Bill, during the dedication in 2003 of the William H. Gates Hall at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle.
William H. Gates Sr., with his son, Bill, during the dedication in 2003 of the William H. Gates Hall at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle.JOHN FROSCHAUER/Associated Press

William H. Gates Sr., a Seattle law firm founder and civic leader who helped his son, tech billionaire Bill Gates, establish what became the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest private philanthropies in the world, died Monday at his home on Hood Canal, near Seattle. He was 94.

He had Alzheimer's disease, his family said in a statement announcing the death.

Mr. Gates — 6-foot-6 in tasseled loafers and often addressed as “Senior” — cultivated a self-assured presence that vaulted him to the forefront of his community’s legal and political establishment.

To his surprise, his son, a Harvard University dropout who always seemed to resist parental authority, not only surpassed him in wealth and influence after cofounding Microsoft but installed him as co-chairman of the family foundation that has become a leader in anti-poverty and global-health initiatives.

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“I never imagined that the argumentative young boy who grew up in my house, eating my food and using my name, would be my future employer,” Mr. Gates once quipped to a Seattle audience of nonprofit executives.

The son of a furniture-store owner, the elder Gates was indelibly shaped by his Depression-era upbringing in working-class Bremerton, across the Puget Sound from Seattle. His father often brought home stray pieces of coal that had fallen off delivery trucks for use heating their home. After Army service in World War II, Mr. Gates attended law school on the G.I. Bill and prospered as a corporate lawyer.

He helped build Preston Gates & Ellis, now K&L Gates, into one of Seattle’s premier law firms. As president of county and state bar associations, he raised funds for legal aid for the poor. In addition, he immersed himself as a trustee, officer, and volunteer in organizations such as United Way and Planned Parenthood.

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Of having entered the incendiary realm of reproductive politics, he wrote in his book "Showing Up for Life" that "enormous good is achieved when women are empowered and given choices."

In 1994, Mr. Gates was 69 and planning to retire in a few years when, one autumn evening, he and his son and his daughter-in-law, Melinda, went to a movie. Standing in the ticket line, Bill Gates Jr. told his father that he was being inundated with appeals for charity but that he was far too busy running Microsoft to answer them.

His father suggested that he, Gates Sr., could sift through the paperwork and, with his son’s approval, send out some checks. Gates Jr. agreed.

What Mr. Gates found were dozens of cardboard boxes filled with requests for money, many with heartbreaking stories of need. A week later, Gates Jr. set aside $100 million to open what was initially called the William H. Gates Foundation. His father, sitting at his kitchen table, wrote the first check: $80,000 for a local cancer program.

Over the next 13 years, Mr. Gates managed the foundation day to day, conferring with its executives and philanthropic experts, sending his son lists of proposed grants, writing checks, and shaping the charity’s major goals: improving health and education and alleviating poverty in America and in developing nations.

“I consider Bill Gates Sr. the conscience of the Gates family,” said Pablo Eisenberg, a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “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.”

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The Gateses' various philanthropic endeavors merged into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000.

Its endowment grew into the tens of billions of dollars, with businessman Warren Buffett vowing in 2006 to donate the majority of his $44 billion fortune to the foundation and several other philanthropies. Mr. Gates became deeply involved in dispensing hundreds of millions of dollars annually in grants.

The needs of the Pacific Northwest consumed much of his focus, as the foundation funded regional cultural and educational institutions as well as organizations providing transitional housing for homeless families.

But his long-standing interest in reproductive and children's health also led to early backing of the New York-based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, the cornerstone of the Gateses' decades-long investment in efforts to combat the disease.

In time he became a roving ambassador for the foundation, while chief executive Patty Stonesifer, a former senior Microsoft official with whom he shared the title of co-chairman, focused on management and strategy. She credited Mr. Gates with helping “dramatically scale up” staffing and serving as a “cultural leader” as the organization grew.

“He led deeply with this idea that, as corny as it sounds, to whom much is given much is expected,” said Stonesifer, who left as chief executive in 2008 and later headed the social service organization Martha’s Table in Washington.

“He was not without ego — he was a tough lawyer,” she added. “But he wasn’t lofty. He never had a sense of entitlement. He was the one who made sure we did everything with head but also heart. He was deeply embedded, through his nonprofit work with United Way and Planned Parenthood, in what it takes to make a community work. He didn’t think any effort was too small to learn about.”

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Mr. Gates also helped build the philanthropy’s global profile, trekking across sub-Saharan Africa in 2002 alongside former president Jimmy Carter and their wives. They met with government leaders, prostitutes, and clinic patients to promote condom use and anti-retroviral vaccines to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Mr. Gates told the Post that he rejected the view of some American donors who declined to support desperately needed charitable work and grant-making in Africa because of endemic corruption on the continent.

"I suppose it's my personal naivete, but I would always come out on the side of 'For God's sake, we've got to do something,' rather than say, 'Let's wait until they fix it,' " he observed.

William Henry Gates II — he called his son “Trey,” for third — was born in Bremerton on Nov. 30, 1925. As a teenager, he was an Eagle Scout. After Army service in the Pacific, he entered the University of Washington and received a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a law degree in 1950.

The next year, he married Mary Maxwell, his college sweetheart, and they had three children. By his family's telling, he could be emotionally distant but came alive during competitive games, from cards to table tennis, and dinnertime conversation about world events.

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"My dad's a very thoughtful person, and things that should be dealt with seriously, he deals with seriously and you listen," Bill Jr. told The Seattle Times. "He conveyed, somehow, without being too explicit, his high expectations of us. There was a certain gravitas to his statements."

In a 2009 Wall Street Journal interview, Mr. Gates recalled his sometimes contentious relationship with his son, whose independent streak made him prone to outbursts against parental control. Mr. Gates once lost his lawyerly cool, dousing his boy with a glass of water in an effort to calm him down.

"Thanks for the shower," his son replied.

Mr. Gates and his wife gradually eased up, sending their son to a private school known for its leniency and indulging his interest in computers. Mr. Gates had once hoped to see his son follow him into law but did not resist too strenuously when he quit Harvard and started Microsoft in 1975 with a friend, Paul Allen. The company became an industry powerhouse in the 1980s and made the younger Gates the face of the information technology revolution.

For years, Mr. Gates’s law firm was one of Microsoft’s preferred legal providers, assisting in its defense during the long-running antitrust suit against the company over the bundling of its popular Internet browser with the Windows 95 operating system. (Microsoft and the Justice Department reached a settlement in 2002.)

Mary Gates, a community volunteer who sat on many corporate boards before her death in 1994, pushed her son early on to start a charitable foundation. The elder Gates said he viewed himself as a caretaker for the foundation until his son gradually stepped back from daily operations at Microsoft.

In 1996, Mr. Gates wed Mimi Gardner, director of the Seattle Art Museum. In addition to his wife and son, he leaves two daughters from his first marriage, Kristianne Blake and Elizabeth MacPhee; and eight grandchildren.

Beyond the foundation, Mr. Gates remained involved in civic life by overseeing a multibillion-dollar fund-raising campaign for the University of Washington. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and received the American Bar Association’s highest award in 2009.