Mary Gates -- She's Much More Than Just The Mother Of Billionaire Bill; This Former UW Regent Has Made A Career Of Community Service

If it is possible for someone at a wedding to be happier than the bride and groom, it was a beaming Mary Gates at her son's Hawaiian nuptials New Year's Day.

For Gates, 64, whose credentials in civic and corporate circles were cemented years before her now-famous son built Microsoft into a software megapower, Bill Gates' marriage to Melinda French represented a coming of full circle.

The mother of two daughters with families, Gates, now battling cancer, has long looked forward to her son's matrimony. He may be the fiercely competitive, fiercely independent billionaire mogul of the world's No. 1 personal-computer software company.

But he is still a son, and she a mother.

So much has her son achieved that Gates seems forever to be cast as "the mother of." Those who know Seattle, and know the Gates family, understand the paucity of the description. Only a little more than a decade ago, Microsoft Bill was known as "the son of."

In 1980, IBM President John Opel had already spent a couple of years on the national board of United Way with Mary. When the head of IBM's fledgling personal-computer project mentioned Microsoft to Opel, his response was, "Oh, that's run by Bill Gates, Mary Gates' son."

Gates came to her station partly by being a "supermom" long before the term was coined, juggling family and homemaking in Wedgwood and Laurelhurst with boardships on United Way, First Interstate Bank, US West and Children's Hospital, to cite a few.

"Mary never neglected her family responsibilities, even with all her other activities," said Seattle attorney Jim Ellis, who served with Gates on the University of Washington Board of Regents and on the editorial board at KIRO. "She proved you could have it all."

Gates says she was lucky: "The career I had was not 9-to-5 oriented, so I had more flexibility than a 40-hour-a-week job. Bill (her husband and a local attorney) really encouraged me to do interesting things in the community - he thought it was more fun to come home if I had something interesting to say at the dinner table. And my mother (Adelle Maxwell) spent a lot of time at our home."

In any case, supermomhood is only one dimension of Gates' contribution. From the regents' boardroom to the Children's Hospital Foundation, from KIRO to the Redmond halls of Microsoft, her impact radiates among multiple spheres of influence.

She herself is proudest of her 18-year tenure with the regents - third longest in its history - which saw the UW emerge from a big if unexceptional regional institution into an internationally known center of biotechnology, computer science, medicine and Asian studies.

"I felt it was really important at that time of anti-Vietnam and campus turmoil to get the university back on track," said Dan Evans, who as governor appointed Gates in 1975 and, in another coming of full circle, was recently named by Gov. Mike Lowry to replace her. "We needed a board whose members really understood how to reach out and connect with the community."

Gates said she had decided to step down from the regents even before her recent diagnosis of cancer. She is presently undergoing therapy "which is showing excellent results," her husband said.

"The opportunity to serve on the board of regents was a rare privilege for me," she said. "I care about education, it's a fine school, I have a lot of respect for Bill Gerberding. I'm going to miss it."

But Gates' most indelible imprint may stand as a "first woman to . . ." role model emerging from the feminist era of the 1970s. In 1975, a watershed year for her, Gates became the first woman president of King County's United Way and the first woman director of First Interstate Bank of Washington, and only the second woman regent at the University of Washington (Dorothy Bullitt, founder of KING Broadcasting, became the first in 1958). By 1983 she'd become the first woman to chair the national United Way's executive committee.

"It was a time when there was lots of pressure from women's groups to be included in officer and board positions," Gates said. "I was relatively well-known to a lot of business people through my United Way work."

Although sympathetic to feminist causes, Gates said she was "never a leader in that movement. But I certainly was the beneficiary of the women who were willing to be more out front and aggressive."

What she did do was help introduce values of consensus and compromise to reflexively competitive male bastions.

"Mary has been a source of balance, wisdom and stability on the regents - its center of gravity," said William Gerberding, whom Gates as regents president helped hire in 1979. "Whenever there's been controversy, her rational presence was felt."

A "Seattleite through and through" who attended Bryant Elementary and Roosevelt High schools, Gates planned a career as a schoolteacher. In 1946 she entered the University of Washington, later serving her senior year as ASUW secretary to student-body President Brock Adams (later the U.S. senator) and as president of Kappa Kappa Gamma.

"She was a bundle of energy - very well-liked, popular and involved in a lot of outside activities," recalls Gordon Culp, a classmate who later joined Gates on the board of regents.

As the daughter and granddaughter of prominent bankers, Gates seemed destined for the role of young 1950s socialite.

A 1954 Seattle Times photo of her instructing three teenage daughters of Women's University Club members on hostessing was captioned, "Tea first, next cream and sugar and then the cookies and mints."

Serving on the ASUW budget and finance committee, she met a tall, thoughtful ex-GI law student from Bremerton named Bill Gates. The two wed in 1951. Bill served as assistant city attorney in Bremerton while Mary taught junior-high school there. When her husband moved to the Seattle law firm of Skeel, McKelvy, Henke, Evenson & Uhlmann, Mary taught at Jane Addams Junior High in North Seattle.

Then it was time to start a family with the birth of Kristianne in 1954, young Bill in 1955 and daughter Libby in 1964.

With Gates' mother, Adelle Maxwell, handling backup rearing chores, Mary supplemented momhood with a widening plate of volunteer and charity activities.

The biggest beneficiaries: Children's Hospital (then Children's Orthopedic), whose board she joined in 1972, and United Way (then United Good Neighbors), for which her father, Willard Maxwell, had served as treasurer in the late 1950s while vice president of Pacific National Bank (today First Interstate).

"When I first met her in 1958 as a new Junior League member, I remember saying afterward, `There's a real comer. She's going to go far in the community,' " said Kate Webster, who later was on the Children's board with Gates. "She wouldn't say, `This is a good idea' and leave it at that. She had great follow-through."

Gates has exercised countless deft, behind-the-scenes interlinkages of power over the years:

-- Nudging her fiercely apolitical son into outspoken opposition to state budget Initiatives 601 and 602 last fall.

-- Helping launch Leadership Tomorrow, responsible for seeding the area with hundreds of budding entrepreneurs and community leaders.

-- Helping get the Seattle Symphony and Children's Hospital on sound footing financially with smart, plugged-in fund-raising programs run by spun-off foundations.

-- Raising corporate community consciousness through Washington Gives, the 5-percent-a-year of income and 5-hours-a-week-of-time project she took over after Ned Skinner's death in 1988.

-- In 1991 the entire Gates clan was named philanthropic family of the year by Washington Gives.

-- And the mother-son connection, responsible for the latter's $12 million contribution to UW biotech research two years ago and luring of bioengineer Lee Hood from Caltech.

"Mary is the perfect example of being able to get a whole lot done if you don't worry about who gets the credit," said the Rev. Dale Turner, whose University Congregational Church the Gates family attended.

Gates decided to retire from the board of regents after she and her husband, a prominent attorney for years with Preston Thorgrimson, conducted a "trial retirement" last winter in Palm Springs, Calif., and found they enjoyed lighter duty.

But the Gates years were pivotal.

As chief of the fiscally strategic Metropolitan Tract Committee she helped oversee crucial leases of 11 downtown acres during a downtown construction era that, with construction of the Rainier Tower and renovation of the Four Seasons Olympic, brought Seattle to world-class status. The university kept the lucrative downtown property after moving north of the Ship Canal in 1895.

When the issue of South African investments tore apart the campus in the early 1980s, Gates pushed first for adoption of the Sullivan principles - written by a General Motors director in support of human-rights standards on investment - and later for divestiture, more as a means of keeping the campus from tearing itself apart than as a path clearly beneficial to the country itself.

"We grappled with the question, what was going to happen to the black people of South Africa if there were no employment?" Gates said. "There were sound arguments on both sides."

Gates is keeping busy. Just last month she was elected to the board of Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition for volunteerism and philanthropy, two Mary Gates touchstones.

Not all has gone smoothly for Gates in her community-service career. She got caught in the crossfire in 1984 when Children's Hospital began its own telethon fund-raiser on KOMO-TV, shifting from its traditional beneficiary, the annual Variety Club event on KIRO-TV, where Gates is a board member.

"The numbers were night and day," said Doug Picha, foundation director. "Mary did what was appropriate," even though it temporarily cost her support from KIRO President Ken Hatch.

"The decision to go to KOMO made me very unhappy, but Mary was caught in the middle," said Hatch, who calls the matter water under the bridge today.

The incident showed Gates' steeliness under fire, a characteristic those close to her say is consistently, albeit, sparingly deployed. As a freshman president of United Way in 1975, Gates had to face the moral indignation of community activists when the agency cut off funding for the Central Seattle Community Council Federation. Among other things, the Council lobbied against construction of the new I-90 tunnel and bridge.

To Mary, the action in retrospect seems as right as it did then. "They were more interested in social issues than they were in providing services," she said. Her mettle in an unexpected baptism of fire caught the attention of community and business leaders.

As a member of KIRO's editorial board, Gates lets her opinions be known, including her opposition to tax-limiting Initiatives 601 and 602. She's taken an active interest in the news side of KIRO, getting to know the staff and observing the news-gathering process.

Some KIRO staffers privately grumble that Gates goes so far as to interfere, as in two years ago when her name came up after Hatch killed a Channel 7 report concerning UW football players with arrest warrants for minor violations.

Hatch said Gates had nothing to do with his action: "Mary believes in separation of church and state and is sophisticated enough to know it comes at great penalty to fool around in the (news) arena."

Gates adamantly denies she played any role in the flap: "It was a clear conflict of interest."

Nonintervention has its drawbacks, too, as Channel 7 staffers discovered in trying to cover the Gates wedding on the island of Lanai. In that contest between mom and board executive, the mom side won. KIRO got no better access than the rest of the news media, which were kicked off the island.

Despite her contributions, Gates is disappointed women haven't cracked more glass ceilings.

"I'm surprised and disappointed that the progress that started in the mid-'70s hasn't continued at the same rate," she said. At the CEO level, she mentions Edmark's Sally Narodick "and then who else? I'm mystified. Whether it's because there isn't as much pressure now from women's groups, or whether it's because change takes a longer time than some of us want it to take, I don't know."

Microsoft hasn't done much better, she acknowledged, "although that kind of business probably isn't as conducive to including women, just because it has been a male-dominated field."

And Gates worries that United Way, which has had trouble meeting its goals despite offering more flexibility in giving, is losing its charter.

"The whole theory of United Way is that there's this citizen group that looks at the needs of the community, undertakes studies, and then allocates the money based on their expertise that none of the rest of us could have as individual citizens," she said. "And when the money starts getting 20 or 25 percent or more designated, the whole planning-allocations process really is invalidated. If you don't have that, what happens to United Way?"

Close observers bet that mother's influence eventually will emerge not only with Microsoft's maturation but with her son's closer community involvement.

"Mary was very instrumental in originally softening Microsoft's posture vis-a-vis being a good corporate citizen," said Scott Oki, ex-Microsoft vice president who has followed the Gates tradition in joining the board of regents and Children's Hospital Foundation. He attributes Microsoft's strong matching-funds program to the mother-son connection.

Her maternal charter fulfilled, Gates can watch as her son and bride finish their estate on the Lake Washington shoreline in Medina - the goal is by his 40th birthday late next year - and start, judging from floor plans, a large family of their own. Perhaps the highest tribute to Gates' parenting is that two of her three children - Bill and Libby, expecting her second child this month - have homes within a stone's throw of Mom and Dad's Laurelhurst place, and the third, Kristi, with two children of her own, visits frequently from out of town.

Gates thinks her son, who recently completed a term on the national United Way board, "is looking forward to more community involvement, once he's completed his role of building his company." One potential target: a local research institute in science or technology.

If so, it will mark yet another coming of full circle for Mary Gates.