Henry Louis Gates Sr., storyteller, father of writer

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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Chapter by chapter, at home and at work, Henry Louis Gates Sr. narrated the ongoing story of his life in tales so engrossing and entertaining that one of his sons thought of him as a talking book.

“My father, if anything, first and last, was a man of words,’’ Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University, wrote in a eulogy. “He loved stories; he didn’t live for stories, exactly, but I think he lived through stories. I think, like many writers, he loved stories about things he had experienced as much as, if not more than, he loved the experiences themselves.’’

When family and friends gather tomorrow in Maryland for a final service to pay tribute to Mr. Gates, who died Christmas Eve at 97, they will celebrate a life story that in death is unfolding still. In his 90s, Mr. Gates became a medical pioneer when his genetic ancestry was examined as part of the Personal Genome Project.

“Henry Louis Gates Sr. was and is the oldest person whose genome was sequenced and made publicly available in this project,’’ said George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who founded and directs the study. “In a way, part of his immortality is that people will be learning things from his genome for years to come.’’

A life beyond life, with new stories emerging from his DNA, may be a fitting future for Mr. Gates, whose narratives were rich with details he recalled with almost scientific precision.

“He was blessed with a photographic memory,’’ his son said. “He could remember everything about 1920 or 1930 or 1940. My father had a perfect memory, which made him a demon of a card player.’’

There was much to remember in his life, culturally and geographically, and much worth relating. He grew up and lived in communities along the border between West Virginia and Maryland, retired to Lexington to live near one son, and then moved to Wayne, N.J., where he died in the home of his other son.

Along with participating in the genome project, he appeared in the PBS television series “African American Lives’’ and “Faces of America.’’ His life spanned social changes from when blacks were barred from sitting at lunch counters next to whites to helping to put his sons through college. One chairs the dentistry department at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center in New York City, and the other directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.

Mr. Gates was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1998 from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

Born in Patterson Creek, W.Va., Mr. Gates was one of eight children and moved as a child to Cumberland, Md., when his family sold their farm.

He danced in a Cumberland ballroom when bands led by Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway came to town, and after high school, he served in the Army during World War II at Camp Lee, Va.

His first day, he “raised his hand when an officer asked who knew accounting,’’ Henry Jr. wrote in “Colored People,’’ a 1994 memoir. “How hard could it be? . . . The one thing I know, he said, was that an accountant had an office, and everybody else had to go to basic training.’’

Rising to staff sergeant, Mr. Gates spent the war at the base, later renamed Fort Lee.

In 1942, he married Pauline Coleman, a stylish woman with discerning tastes in clothes who became the first black secretary of the local parent teacher association, after the couple moved to Piedmont, W.Va. Like most everyone, she was drawn to Mr. Gates in part because of his sure sense of humor.

“My father was the funniest man I ever met,’’ his son said. “He made Redd Foxx look like an undertaker.’’

While he often took aim at hypocrisy in his stories, he lightened the blow with a dose of whimsy.

“Daddy was the storyteller, our homemade fabricator, prevaricator, exaggerator, and hyperbolist par excellence,’’ his son wrote in the eulogy. “When we were boys, Mama would shout at Daddy to ‘stop telling those boys all those lies,’ scarcely able to stifle her own laughter at one of Daddy’s tall tales.’’

Learning early what would satisfy him, Mr. Gates chose two jobs: loading hulking crates onto trucks full time for a paper company and cleaning part time as janitor for a telephone company. And yet “he was one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met,’’ said his son, who legally changed his first name and became Henry Jr. to honor his father. “He would recite poetry, I mean acres of poetry, because they had to learn by rote.’’

Mr. Gates, meanwhile, reaped the fringe benefit of spending his days with loaders on the platform.

“He lived the life he wanted,’’ his son said. “He liked it and turned down promotions all the time.’’

When his sons asked Mr. Gates why, with his intelligence, he did not seek higher-profile jobs, “he looked at us, dumbfounded, and said, ‘What and miss all those good stories?’ ’’

In the eulogy, his son wrote that as an oral historian, “Daddy’s raw material was the lives he shared on a day-to-day basis.’’

With his older son, Dr. Paul Gates of Wayne, N.J., Mr. Gates also shared a love of sports, sometimes disagreeing about teams and specific athletes.

“I was a Wilt Chamberlain fan,’’ Paul Gates said, “and he was a Bill Russell fan.’’

A devotee of the Giants, from before the baseball team moved from New York to San Francisco, Mr. Gates was particularly gratified to see his club win the World Series again last fall.

“My dad was not an athlete at all,’’ his son said, “but he had this love of sports.’’

Pauline Gates died in 1987, and besides his two sons, Mr. Gates leaves 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow in Emmanuel Parish in Cumberland, Md.

Long associated with the Episcopal Church, save the early years of marriage before his wife converted, Mr. Gates “at one point in time told me that he considered pursuing education to become a priest in the Episcopal Church,’’ Paul said.

In his later years in New Jersey, Mr. Gates attended an 8 a.m. service each Sunday at Christ Church in Pompton Lakes, N.J.

“He was a man of compassion waiting to happen, whenever there was a need or something that required attention,’’ said the Rev. Stephen Rozzelle, priest in charge at Christ Church. “The basic message of Jesus was to give your life away, and that’s what Henry did best. It wasn’t about keeping the rules; it was about being the spirit of God wherever he went. He was God’s compassion waiting to happen in the world.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at