Williams Gates Sr., who stepped in when appeals for charity began to overwhelm his billionaire son and started what became the world’s largest philanthropy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, died on Monday at his beach home on Hood Canal, at the age of 94.
The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, his family said in an announcement on Tuesday.
In 1994, Mr. Gates was 69 and planning to retire from his prestigious law practice in a few years when, one autumn evening, he and his son, Bill, and his daughter-in-law, Melinda, went to a movie. Standing in the ticket line, Bill 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, Bill Sr., could sift through the paperwork and, with his son’s approval, send out some checks. Bill Jr. agreed.
What Mr. Gates Sr. found later were dozens of cardboard boxes filled with requests for money, many with heartbreaking stories of need.
A week later, Bill 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, while Bill Gates focused primarily on Microsoft, his father 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 the third world.
Bill Gates Jr. credited his father with the early success of the foundation. “I make sure the resources are available, and he works to wisely spend the money,” he told The Seattle Times in 2003.
A prominent Seattle lawyer with heavy civic and professional obligations, Mr. Gates Sr. had largely left to his wife, Mary, the duties of raising their two daughters and one son, Bill, who, all agreed, became insufferably argumentative as a boy — resisting his mother’s requests that he clean up his room, that he stop biting his pencils and that he sit down to dinner on time.
Their test of wills exploded one night at the dinner table, with Bill shouting at his mother in what he described years later to The Wall Street Journal as “utter, total, sarcastic, smart-ass kid rudeness.” In response, his father, in “a rare blast of temper,” The Journal wrote, threw a glass of water in his son’s face.
Young Bill was taken to a therapist, who advised his parents to ease off on discipline. They sent him to Lakeside, a private prep school in Seattle, where he had access to computers. There he met Paul Allen, a student computer whiz.
Years later, the parents acquiesced when Bill quit Harvard and moved to Albuquerque, where he and Mr. Allen founded Microsoft in 1975.
Microsoft grew into the world’s largest personal computer software company. Its 1986 public offering turned its founders into billionaires and 12,000 employees into millionaires. It became one of America’s most valuable publicly traded companies — the third, after Apple and Amazon, to reach the magical trillion-dollar market capitalization.
“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,” Bill Sr. told the Seattle Rotary Club in 2005.
In an age of income inequality, Mr. Gates Sr. argued that the purpose of wealth was not to pass it on to loved ones. With Mr. Buffett and the financier George Soros, he opposed a repeal of the federal estate tax in 2001. In 2003 he published “Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes” (written with Chuck Collins). And he campaigned unsuccessfully in 2010 for a Washington State income tax on individuals earning $200,000 and couples earning $400,000.
Unlike most philanthropies, the Gates foundation’s bylaws mandate the disposal of all its assets within 20 years of the death of Bill or Melinda Gates, whichever comes later. By 2019, the foundation had given away about $50 billion but still had a $47 billion endowment. Forbes magazine said Bill Gates had $108.8 billion in January 2020, exceeded only by the fortune of the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos ($115.6 billion) and that of Bernard Arnault, the LVMH luxury goods titan ($117 billion).
In his book “Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime” (2009), Mr. Gates Sr. wrote: “Those who claim that the wealth they have accumulated is theirs to pass on without returning anything back to the American system show a shocking lack of appreciation for all that the system and public monies did to help them create wealth.”