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One life is enough for most people. William Gates, Sr., has led three: as a lawyer, philanthropist, and political activist. A business generalist, Gates, 79, played a leading role in the makeover of Seattle from a Boeing-and-timber town to a center of high-tech industry. He represented many of the area’s leading computer and biotechnology firms, shepherding them from infancy to powerhouse. But his relationship with one company was always at arm’s length: Gates, Sr., passed Microsoft Corporation work to others in his firm in order to avoid a potentially “awkward” situation with his son, Bill, and other Microsoft executives. One of those lawyers was William Neukom, who went on to become general counsel of Microsoft. At the same time, Gates was building several law firms, culminating in Seattle’s largest, Preston Gates & Ellis. He always combined legal savvy with a devotion to public service: Gates was active in literally dozens of Pacific Northwest groups, from bar associations to the United Way to the University of Washington. When he retired in 1998, his focus shifted from local to international. Gates became cochair of his son’s foundation, the world’s largest, much of whose giving is directed at global health problems. In order to administer those grants, Gates has visited some of the poorest, most remote places on earth, including a brothel in Botswana and a health clinic in Bangladesh. Tragic settings, but he had some great companions for at least one of those trips: In 2002 Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter accompanied him to South Africa to draw attention to the AIDS crisis. His political voice has also led him into some unexpected places. Gates is the coauthor (with Chuck Collins) of a recent book supporting the estate tax. Given his son’s position as The World’s Richest Man, the book’s subtitle strikes a jarring note: “Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes.” Government activism requires money, which is why Gates vigorously advocates progressive taxation. “So much of our quality of life is a function of what is provided by government,” he says. As an example, he cites the federal funding of researchers at Dartmouth in the 1960s, which led to the creation of computer languages, which led to the growth of Microsoft and other software companies. He appreciates the irony, but even more, he appreciates the possibilities that well-funded government programs can create. Back to Main Story

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