When Jean Inglefield — later Jean Gates — went to Adams High School in the early 1940s, schoolmate Fred Crowe said she was the prettiest girl in South Bend.
Van Gates, a Mishawaka guy, also noticed her beauty … and charm … and liveliness.
“Dad told me his friends from South Bend always accused the Mishawaka guys of coming over and stealing their girls,” says Bill Gates, one of the Gates’ four children. “So Mom was one of those girls stolen by the Mishawaka guys.”
But they didn’t start dating until they were students at Northwestern University. Van wooed Jean in an old Model A Ford that he had picked up for around $50. His dad, the founder of the Gates Automotive dynasty, was a Chevy man but he was more upset that his son had felt he needed the extravagance of a car while in college.
Van and Jean married on June 15, 1946, after he returned from World War II. He had served as a Naval officer on a troop transport ship in the Pacific.
And before Jean died on Jan. 16, a little shy of her 97th birthday, they were able to celebrate their 75th anniversary last June. They were a great and wonderful couple to the very end.
Their union was a rare feat of both duration and devotion. Couples who make it to 70 years represent just one-tenth of one percent of all marriages. Couples who make it to 75 years are so rare, there aren’t even statistics for it, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I always think of them as a couple — Mom and Dad, Van and Jean, they always were a package deal,” Bill Gates continues. “You did not think of one without the other.”
While Van worked eventually succeeded his father, L.O. Gates, in a business that is now run by the fourth generation of the family, Jean was his not-so-silent partner. She could counteract his soft touch with spunk and spontaneity.
“Mom was a stranger to no one,” Bill says. “She always made people feel welcome and I learned through her what hospitality was all about. I also learned proper manners like standing up when a woman comes into the room. Also, holding the door open for people.”
Under her domain, her four children — Larry, Bill, Bonnie and Kitty — knew they were to clean their plates … make their beds … and hang up their clothes.
And she always told it like it was.
Once while on a Lake Michigan boat trip with grandkids, Jean and Van tied up their boat at a marina and watched a Chicago Bulls-Detroit Pistons playoff game at a dockside bar and grille.
“A lady standing right behind Nana called out, ‘Michael Jordan’s an asshole!’” recalls Michael Gates, one of Jean’s grandsons “Nana didn’t hesitate for a second. She jerked around, smacked the lady on the arm to get her attention, and growled, ‘Don’t use that kind of language around my grandsons!’ The lady wisely said nothing and began to inch away to another part of the bar.”
Michael also remembers when he and his cousin Kevin were visiting their grandparents in Florida during spring break. “It was the late 1990s and we’d let our hair grow out more than usual,” he says. “The first morning we were there, we came to the breakfast table and found two $20 bills and a note from Nana saying she’d made haircut appointments for both of us. Hint, hint.”
Mostly, Jean glowed when in other people’s company. “I was always impressed about mom‘s friendliness and warmth to everyone, whether it was someone like the head of Chevrolet or just an ‘average joe’ type of person,” Bill says.
Despite the financial success of the family business, Jean Gates had no false airs.
She loved to entertain, get involved in the community, root for Notre Dame and spoil her 15 grandkids, 46 great grandkids and now two great great grandchildren.
They both loved their cars. Van would often drive the new Corvettes from the factory until they were sold and so Jean surprised him on his 75th birthday by getting him one of his own. He was over the moon, although a few months later at a Gates managers’ meeting, he found out it hadn’t been paid for yet. There were a few stifled laughs around the table on that one.
Jean and Van were a pair of pillars with Van, who will be 98 this summer, trying to cope without his partner of 75 years.
“One of the few times I saw Mom get mad at Dad was when someone from the dealership sold the car she was driving as a demo — a beautiful robin’s egg blue Impala convertible,” Bill adds. “She was steamed.”
She quickly got over it. It wasn’t about the transportation the Gates used for their journey through life, but about who was sitting beside them.