The life and lessons of my father, David Gates

Many of you may know that my relationship with my father was unique in that he was my father, but he was also a creative director, my mentor, my first boss, and the foundation of everything I am. On October 5th, 2020, he suddenly passed away. In this episode, I want to share my father’s story as a designer and creative director, how my life has been a direct reaction to his career, and in sharing those stories, I hope you can better understand me, my father, and yourself.

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For the majority of this show, I have tried to create a formula of having each episode deal with a specific problem – laying out the reasons behind it, my experience with it, and what you can do to deal with it. This year I have found a number of times when I wanted to take a detour from that approach and this show is going to be another one of those times but with good reason. It will also be another one of those moments when I am reminded that this show helps me just as much if not more than I hope it helps you.

I got a call from my mother early in the morning of September 27th from a hospital not far rom my childhood home in Pittsburgh that my father had become very ill. On October 5th, 2020 he passed away. Just when you think 2020 can’t get any worse… It was sudden and shocking turn of events that I am still working through and sure I will be for some time. It did however seems like some sort of cosmic alignment and something when later that day I also saw it was the same day Steve Jobs passed away.

Many of you may know that my relationship with my father was unique in that he was my father but he was also a creative director, my mentor, first boss and the foundation of everything I am. This is why I refer to myself as a second generation creative director to the confusion of almost everyone. I trued to constantly pay tribute to what he gave me in that if you have ever seen one of my talks then you have seen when I do my intro I show a photo of me at 2 years old standing on the letterpress that was in our basement which was the start of my design education. But the story from the moment that photography was taken until now is one I have never shared – until now.

In this episode, I want to share my father’s story as a designer and creative director, how my life has been a direct reaction to his career and in sharing those stories hope you can get a better understanding of me, my father and yourself as well.

Where to start…

It is hard to know where to start with all of this as I still struggle when I find that I have to speak about him in the past tense. It is something my mother and I have discussed a lot over the past few weeks but I owe who I am, where I am in my career and so much more to my parents.

My father, David, was a designer, creative director, illustrator and all around artist. His ability to draw and create always dwarfed my own. My mother, Nancy, was a soft sculpture artist with her own business making puppets, jesters and all sorts of fabrics creatures and creations for galleries and juried shows. She even made the angel for the White House Xmas tree one year.

Take at face value, such a creative and design filled childhood would seem to show a clear road to who I am. But like all families, stories and relationships were more complicated than what they would appear at first glance.

Legacy of swinging for the fences

One of the most interesting things is I have learned so many things about my family and my father since he passed as I went through his studio, photos, designs, and more. Before we get to my father’s story I want to take a quick detour into another part of my family that made me laugh and realize that the Crazy One was something that started long before me.

As I went through my father’s office I found a letter postmarked May 18, 1964, which was from before my parent even met. The letter got my attention for two reasons. As I pulled the yellowed envelope from the drawer I saw it was addressed to my grandmother at their house in Akron Ohio. But I really did a double-take when I saw the return address was The White House.

I emerged from his studio to find my mother to ask about what this was before I pulled the letter from inside to read it. She smiled and said, “Read the letter and I will explain”. I pulled the letter from the envelope and started reading…
(read letter).

My mother explained that in the early ’60s the Vietnam war had broken out and feeling like he was going to be drafted, my father enlisted in the Army. During this time my grandmother had become convinced that my father would be the perfect match for President Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson. So she set off on a letter-writing campaign to let Lynda know that this was the case and this letter, hand-signed by Lynda Bird Johnson, was the reply to attempt to get my grandmother to stop this campaign. It would seem that the Gates legacy of swinging for the fences and going after crazy ideas started long before me.

The Tomb Guard

But that story does work as a good intro to my father as he did join the Army, and after completing his training at Fort Knox he volunteered to become a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington cemetery.

I have gotten comments from a lot of people that they would have never guessed I was from a military family given that both of my parents were designers. If you have ever worked with me or been around me you know that I am known for a certain level of attention to detail, emotional intensity, and passion – all of that is about to make a whole lot more sense.

The Tomb Guard who has guarded it 24 hours a day since April 6, 1948, by soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment. Being a Sentinel or Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns or part of “The Old Guard” is considered one of the highest honors because it is a process where over 90% of applicants fail the process and then over 90% again fail to make it to become a Tomb Guard. This has made the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge the second least-awarded qualification badge of the United States Army after the Astronaut badge.

Everything they do is about precision and respect from the 1/64″ standards they keep for their uniforms to the 21 steps they take down the mat in front of the Tomb in reference to the 21 gun salute which is the highest military honor. My father was Badge #31 out of 683 ever awarded.

But the interesting thing is that this is a part of his life he never talked about much. He kept his Tomb Guard badge in a plastic frame in his office and I can remember two times growing up when we would go to Washington and would stop by the Tomb going down into the barracks where there was a brass plate with his name on it. But he never made a big deal about it so I never made a big deal about it.

There were members of our family who didn’t even know he was a Tomb Guard after talking with him at family reunions for decades. It sadly took this process of having him in the hospital and hospice for me to step back and see through his humility to realize how much of a big deal with was.

It started with the nurses at the UPMC hospice facility in Lawrenceville, who I will never be able to thank enough for their kindness when they told me they had been researching my Dad and found his page on the Society of the Tomb Guard website but were sad to see it was blank. I had no idea what they were talking about so I set off on my own research finding that he was indeed listed on the Tomb Guard site, it was indeed blank and I would later find an old email to his asking him to fill out his profile. I am now working with the Society of the Tomb Guard to fix that page and give him the honor he deserved but it starts to show something that would run deeper than I ever suspected.

His career

After the Army, he went off to art school in Cleveland where he met my mother, who would describe him as cute but with a weird walk thanks to his time in the Tomb Guard. They moved to Detroit after he graduated to work as a designer for General Motors.

Detroit then turned into Pittsburgh as he joined a young advertising firm called VanDine, Horton, McNamara, Manges. Two years later I entered the picture, and two years after that the photo of me standing on the printing press was taken. My mom started her home business so she could stay with me but still share her creativity with the world.

Ten years later I had been featured in photo shoots, got used to going to gallery openings, and my paper route gave way to working with my Dad at the agency summers and weekends. I got to design everything from advertising for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, to investor meetings with Alcoa Aluminum featuring where we got to work with concept cars from Audi, and much more. It was an amazing six years that gave an incredible portfolio headed into college.

The imposter cycle

My dad was my hero but he was also human – and it was that human side that had one of the biggest influences on me and is the area I think we can all relate to and learn from. This is where the story takes a turn because when I was in college his time in the agency world ended rather suddenly.

For years I really never knew what happened but he was suddenly out and was working on his own. In the years since and in the weeks since his passing, I have come to understand the whole story. His role had been reduced time and time again until he was pushed out of the agency. He had interviewed a few other agencies but those didn’t go well so went out on his own.

This understanding of what happened with his career and my understanding of creatives has led to realizations that I will always agonize over and torment myself with. I came to see and look back at our past to understand that he suffered from severe imposter syndrome. After his passing I took a week or so to go through his studio where I saw for the first time how often this cycle repeated and plagued him throughout his life.

From being pushed out of the agency and not pushing to stay or fighting back, to the interviews that didn’t go well so he went out on his own, to the portfolio, promos, cards and so much more that I found in his studio that was fantastic but was never sent out.

How it made me

It was a crushing realization when you see what your parents gave you such an incredible head start and an amazing childhood. But without understanding what I was seeing I had a front-row seat to see what deep imposter syndrome can do to someone.

It took me years to understand that the issues I am passionate about are because they are what I saw him struggle with.
• Leadership and career coaching
• Understanding and fighting impostor syndrome
• Taking control of your career and building your personal brands

I try and help as many people as I can through this podcast, my talks, career coaching, and mentoring to avoid those same problems as a self-imposed penance for not being able to save him from those problems sooner. But more interestingly it took my father far longer to make those same connections. Over the past year as he and I talked quite a bit about all of this.

I got one of the deepest compliments of my entire life when he told me that after listening to my talks and podcasts – that if he had had me when he was working everything would have been different. It an almost surreal yet full-circle moment when the man who gave you everything including your career tells you that you have become the thing that could have saved his career.

What I’ve learned

Because of the parallels between us this entire process has force me to do some series self reflecting and look at the state of my life and career. A few thoughts have emerged that I hope might help you

Because of the parallels between us this entire process has force me to do some series self reflecting and look at the state of my life and career. A few thoughts have emerged that I hope might help you

• Invest in and repair the relationships that matter
• Conflict isn’t always about you
• It can be easy to take the things and people that matter for granted

Final thought

All of this is still new and raw for me so my thought and feeling here may change and evolve. But no matter how I feel, the loss will always remain.

In whatever ways it has affect me, it has affected my mother more for obvious reasons. I know that she has gotten the short end of the attention in this episode which isn’t fair as she was just as big an influence on me. I am left wishing I could have done more for him but knowing how proud he was in what I have become.

At a number of different times in the life of this show, I have tried to give it an overarching meaning and purpose. The meaning has changed as my perspective and experience has. I think I finally see the real purpose of all of this.

I am not someone who is religious but I do think that people only die when people stop saying their name. I will always say his name, use the photo in my intro, and continue my work on the issues I am passionate about from him. I have done all of this so you can hopefully avoid the mistakes he and I have made while passing on what he taught me which means all of you are his legacy too.

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