Leslie C. Gates
Class of 1940, BS
Beckley, West Virginia, is one lucky town – it can claim Leslie C. Gates as a hometown boy.
Some 15 years ago, 10 of Beckley’s local professional and business leaders decided to establish a Beckley Area Foundation to provide for scholarships and other needs. Mr. Gates was one of the participants. They started with $1,100,000 from the Walker Foundation, and today the fund is close to $13 million.
Then, two years ago, Mr. Gates became President of the Forward Southern West Virginia non-profit corporation, previously known as Beckley Downtown. With the 1940 Virginia Tech civil engineering graduate at the helm, five challenges were adopted to improve the community. The group has trained 127 middle school teachers in business practices in an effort to move West Virginia into national leadership in math and science technology in the K-through-12 school system by 2006. They are also accelerating health care system improvement, working on the development of the business and technology I-64 corridor from White Sulfur Springs to Beckley, promoting tourism year round, and heightening the awareness of the importance of energy in the state.
The Mountain State has always claimed Mr. Gates’ heart. As with most young men in the 1940s, he served in World War II. After attending Virginia Tech as a member of the Corps of Cadets, he served as the Major Executive Officer of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion through five battles in Europe. He was among those who crossed the English Channel into Normandy on D-Day Plus Three.
But when the war was over, he hastened back to West Virginia to work with his father’s business, Ferguson-Gates Engineering Company. Mr. Gates thrived in his new career. By 1958, he became the sole owner, but he realized he could not develop the business as he envisioned it by relying solely on West Virginia’s economy. For this reason, he expanded the mining activities to include the operating side. Later, he became involved in civil engineering by taking the first highway job in 1959. He added architectural planning, and new offices in Charleston and Beckley.
Deciding that he needed to move his mining activities westward, he opened an office in Denver after securing a contract from Bechtel, the largest mining firm in the world. “This was a big break for us,” Mr. Gates recalls. He quickly followed this expansion with the opening of offices in Chicago, Illinois, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and later Sydney, Australia.
In 1961, he changed the name to Gates Engineering Company. “I really wanted to build a firm that could compete. My motivation was pride for the state, and I was always irritated that so many of the state’s road commission’s projects went to out-of-state companies,” he says. And build a firm he did. Gates Engineering began working for banks, producing economic development plans to establish the viability of a loan. The company achieved an excellent reputation in this financial arena. “In fact, our company was one that the Bank of New York always recommended,” Mr. Gates remembers. “And today, my son’s firm regularly receives highway department jobs.”
And as Mr. Gates’ reputation increased, so did his involvement in professional societies. After serving as President of the West Virginia Society of Professional Engineers in 1951, he moved on to hold numerous positions in the National Society of Professional Engineers, including its presidency in 1974-75. He worked to enhance his profession, and one of the major accomplishments of the NSPE during his term was teaming with Senator Jacob Javitts of New York and persuading him to sponsor a bill that permitted the movement of retirement benefits from one company to another. The issue stemmed from what Mr. Gates called the “migratory nature” of the engineer. “The character of engineers is that they tend to move around a lot, especially in the early years of their career. They would often lose retirement benefits,” he explains. When President Ford signed the bill into law in the Rose Garden, Mr. Gates was one of the invited guests.
And another friend, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, credits Mr. Gates with being instrumental in obtaining the new Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building in Beckley. The address of the $40 million building just happens to be on Leslie C. Gates Place in Beckley.
Besides his many public service activities that keep him busy today, Mr. Gates remains as Chairman of his son’s firm, the L.A. Gates Company. He is married to Anneva Covey Gates, a physician.
Class of: 1940
Year Inducted into Academy: 2002