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An Interview with Chancellor Gates

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February 9, 2016

1:06 AM

Chancellor Robert Gates ’65 wanted to attend the College of William and Mary for all the wrong reasons.

“I escaped Wichita because I was a dumb teenager and I thought that I had to come back east to get a good education,” Gates said. “I would later find when I was president of Texas A&M that that was not the case. But I’d argued with my dad for two years about the fact that I wanted to come back east for school.”

He said his father Melville Gates didn’t understand why he couldn’t attend Kansas State University like his brother. Eventually, they struck a deal. Gates would receive the same amount of money as his brother and would be responsible for making up the difference. Gates said he funded his education through scholarships from the College and a part-time job as a James City County school bus driver.

“I read it and I got to the end of it and thought, ‘What were you trying to say? I have no idea what you’re talking about,’” Gates said. “I’m sure it was considered highly intellectual and thoughtful at the time. Let’s just say I think my writing style has improved since I wrote for the Review.”

Once he arrived at the College, Gates kept busy. He worked as an assistant scoutmaster for the Boy Scout troop at the Williamsburg United Methodist Church, became active in Alpha Phi Omega, served as a dormitory manager and joined the campus chapter of the Young Republicans. Gates said he also found time to date.

If his strong work ethic went on to serve him as the twenty-second Secretary of Defense, Gates also had tastes in college that are less apparent today.

TUCKER HIGGINS / THE FLAT HAT

“I escaped Wichita because I was a dumb teenager and I thought that I had to come back east to get a good education,” Gates said. TUCKER HIGGINS / THE FLAT HAT

Reminded about his tenure as Business Manager of the William and Mary Review, a literary and arts magazine, Gates said he did not remember how he first got involved in the magazine, as he does not consider himself a particularly literary person. He recalled reading an old article of his years later.

“I read it and I got to the end of it and thought, ‘What were you trying to say? I have no idea what you’re talking about,’” Gates said. “I’m sure it was considered highly intellectual and thoughtful at the time. Let’s just say I think my writing style has improved since I wrote for the Review.”

Like many students at the College, Gates encountered his fair share of academic stress.

The first snag came freshman year, when a D in a calculus class upset his plans to pursue pre-med studies. He shifted to studying history halfway through sophomore year.  Later on, Gates received an “F-”  on a midterm in professor Ludwell Johnson’s American history class.

“I had misread the question and it was one of these one question essay tests,” Gates said. “The interesting thing is I ended up with an A for the semester.”

Despite the intense academic environment, Gates said that his experience on campus was generally relaxed but lacking some of the traditions current College students experience.

“There’s always something you can find to smile about and laugh about,” Gates said. “It can be a situation, it can be the actions of someone, it can be something somebody says. But if you’re in the right frame of mind, you can always get a laugh or a smile. Even under the toughest of circumstances.”

“We didn’t have anything in those days like the Iron Man or Triathlon. Stuff like that,” Gates said. “It was a pretty staid college.”

Gates said his refined sense of the absurd has gotten him through many difficult situations, throughout his time on campus and his career as a government official. He encouraged students to maintain a sense of humor about life.

“There’s always something you can find to smile about and laugh about,” Gates said. “It can be a situation, it can be the actions of someone, it can be something somebody says. But if you’re in the right frame of mind, you can always get a laugh or a smile. Even under the toughest of circumstances.”

TUCKER HIGGINS / THE FLAT HAT

Gates said his refined sense of the absurd has gotten him through many difficult situations, throughout his time on campus and his career as a government official. TUCKER HIGGINS / THE FLAT HAT

Saying that he believed most College students to be ambitious and competitive, Gates advised students to keep their post-grad options open.

“If you’re successful at William and Mary, you’re going to be okay,” Gates said. “There will be jobs and you will have opportunities. Don’t be afraid now and then to take the night off and have fun … That second semester of your senior year you might be offered some opportunity to travel abroad that’s totally contrary to your plans, and it might be a life changing experience, so you’ve got to be open to new experiences and don’t be so driven on the path that you’ve designed for yourself that you’re afraid to take a few excursions.”

When Gates would get overwhelmed at the College, he said he would leave his Bryan Complex dorm and take a quiet walk through Colonial Williamsburg.

“In some ways, my fondest memory, when feeling stressed or something I would just walk down Duke of Gloucester Street to the Capitol and back,” Gates said. “This was very leveling and it would calm me down.”

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About Author

Áine Cain

Senior Staff Writer Aine Cain '16 is a history major from Bronxville, NY. She was previously Editor-in-Chief, News Editor, Variety Editor and an Associate Variety Editor. Follow @ainesane on Twitter.