The daughter of Willard Maxwell, a Seattle bank executive, and Adelle Thompson of Enumclaw, she was class valedictorian and a star forward on the girls' high school basketball team. The Maxwells became one of Seattle's most socially prominent families. After her marriage to attorney William Gates Jr. (later known as William Gates Sr.), Mary Gates taught junior high school in Bremerton. She gave up teaching when her second child, Bill Gates, was born in October 1955, but she remained interested in education, volunteering as a lecturer for Seattle's Museum of History and Industry. She often took her young son with her when she traveled to area schools to talk about the region's culture and history.
More than 1,000 mourners attended her memorial service at the University Congregational Church on June 16, 1994. Her three children -- son Bill and daughters Kristianne Blake of Spokane and Elizabeth (Libby) Armintrout of Seattle -- told stories about her passion for education, her support of their careers and lives, and the lessons they will pass along to their own children. "Not many adult sons are as proud of their mother as I was," Bill Gates said.
The church was packed with business and political leaders who celebrated her compassion and her leadership skills. "One of Seattle's greatest treasures has passed from the scene," said Mayor Norm Rice, who called her "an extraordinary civic leader and philanthropist, a champion for social justice and a remarkable human being."