What's in a Name?

Bill Gates and James Brown have one thing in common — they’re both Federal Way residents.

Federal Way’s Bill Gates, 57, has just started his first term as a commissioner for the city’s fire department, and as he puts it, “I had the name first.”

Over the past 15 years or so, as Microsoft has grown in prominence, having the same name as the company’s founder has been quite useful to Federal Way’s Gates.

“When I was campaigning for fire commissioner, I’d go door to door introducing myself,” Gates said. “People who were reluctant to talk with me opened the door at once when I gave my name. One guy had me stand there while he went and got his wife because he said otherwise, she’d never believe him.”

During the campaign, quite a few of Gate’s yard signs went missing. He later found out hey had become prized office decorations up in Redmond.

Bill Gates’ wife’s name is Mary, so together they have the same names as the Microsoft founder’s well-known parents. Over the years, they have received mail obviously intended for a different Bill and Mary. “We’ve either tossed the letters out, or sometimes, forwarded them to Microsoft headquarters,” Gates said.

Gates works at Merrill Lynch and Co, as a stockbroker. “I was backing up another broker one day and the receptionist asked me to talk with a client who wanted to sell some Microsoft stock,” he said. “I answered the phone ‘Hello, this is Bill Gates. I understand you want to sell some Microsoft stock.’ There was a long silence on the line.”

There is no way anyone who’s met James Brown, a 32-year-old teacher at Federal Way High School, would confuse him with ‘The Godfather of Soul’. Having the same name as the famous singer has provoked strangers’ responses to Brown in ways that have become both familiar and predictable. “When I was a teen-ager and people would make remarks about my name, I’d make some sarcastic remarks along the lines of ‘aren’t you original’,” he said.

“When I got a little older though, I realized that it was a way that strangers were trying to make a more personal connection with me, and I became more gracious and played along as if their comment was an original one,” Brown said. “Years ago, I got to the point that it was quite OK with me that people responded to me that way. I was also quite unintentionally able to keep up on the course of at least one celebrity’s life, because as his life changed, people would make different comments to me.”

The death of Microsoft founder’s mother Mary Gates in 1995 ended an 11-year relationship with Federal Way’s Mary Gates which began because of the name similarity. “She was a gracious lady with a wonderful sense of humor,” Mary Gates said. “I was able to introduce her at a woman’s networking conference in Federal Way in the mid 1980’s and our friendship grew from there.

“I was attending a regional transportation meeting in Seattle on the day she died,” Gates said. “Not many of us get to see our death announced in 3-inch headlines, and my shock and sense of loss was compounded when I realized I knew the Mary Gates who had died.”

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 28
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates