As I was putting together my list of suggested reading for the summer, I realized that the topics they cover sound pretty heavy for vacation reading.
My dad passed away peacefully at home yesterday, surrounded by his family.
We will miss him more than we can express right now. We are feeling grief but also gratitude. My dad’s passing was not unexpected—he was 94 years old and his health had been declining—so we have all had a long time to reflect on just how lucky we are to have had this amazing man in our lives for so many years. And we are not alone in these feelings. My dad’s wisdom, generosity, empathy, and humility had a huge influence on people around the world.
My sisters, Kristi and Libby, and I are very lucky to have been raised by our mom and dad. They gave us constant encouragement and were always patient with us. I knew their love and support were unconditional, even when we clashed in my teenage years. I am sure that’s one of the reasons why I felt comfortable taking some big risks when I was young, like leaving college to start Microsoft with Paul Allen. I knew they would be in my corner even if I failed.
As I got older, I came to appreciate my dad’s quiet influence on almost everything I have done in life. In Microsoft’s early years, I turned to him at key moments to seek his legal counsel. (Incidentally, my dad played a similar role for Howard Schultz of Starbucks, helping him out at a key juncture in his business life. I suspect there are many others who have similar stories.)
My dad also had a profound influence on my drive. When I was a kid, he wasn’t prescriptive or domineering, and yet he never let me coast along at things I was good at, and he always pushed me to try things I hated or didn’t think I could do (swimming and soccer, for example). And he modeled an amazing work ethic. He was one of the hardest-working and most respected lawyers in Seattle, as well as a major civic leader in our region.
My dad’s influence on our philanthropy was just as big. Throughout my childhood, he and my mom taught me by example what generosity looked like in how they used their time and resources. One night in the 1990s, before we started our foundation, Melinda, Dad, and I were standing in line at the movies. Melinda and I were talking about how we had been getting more requests for donations in the mail. Dad simply said, “Maybe I can help.”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would not be what it is today without my dad. More than anyone else, he shaped the values of the foundation. He was collaborative, judicious, and serious about learning. He was dignified but hated anything that seemed pretentious. (Dad’s given name was William H. Gates II, but he never used the “II”—he thought it sounded stuffy.) He was great at stepping back and seeing the big picture. He was quick to tear up when he saw people suffering in the world. And he would not let any of us forget the people behind the strategies we were discussing.
People who came through the doors of the Gates Foundation felt honored to work with my dad. He saw the best in everyone and made everyone feel special.
We worked together at the foundation not so much as father and son but as friends and colleagues. He and I had always wanted to do something concrete together. When we started doing so in a big way at the foundation, we had no idea how much fun we would have. We only grew closer during more than two decades of working together.
Finally, my dad had a profoundly positive influence on my most important roles—husband and father. 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.
Dad wrote me a letter on my 50th birthday. It is one of my most prized possessions. In it, he encouraged me to stay curious. He said some very touching things about how much he loved being a father to my sisters and me. “Over time,” he wrote, “I have cautioned you and others about the overuse of the adjective ‘incredible’ to apply to facts that were short of meeting its high standard. This is a word with huge meaning to be used only in extraordinary settings. What I want to say, here, is simply that the experience of being your father has been… incredible.”
I know he would not want me to overuse the word, but there is no danger of doing that now. The experience of being the son of Bill Gates was incredible. People used to ask my dad if he was the real Bill Gates. The truth is, he was everything I try to be. I will miss him every day.
My family worked together on a wonderful obituary for my dad, which you can read here.