The Marvelous Mr. Gates

You can do a lot of living in a century, especially if you get an extra five years

And even with all the years gone by like so many garden harvests, his memory is decent and reliable. It's just that so much of what there is to remember is gone. "Buster Wortman used to come in here," he says, referring to Frank "Buster" Wortman, the once-notorious member of the Chicago Mob (who reported to Sam Giancana) whose turf was East St. Louis. "I didn't know who he was, but once he introduced himself we got acquainted. High rollers would come in here looking for women. There used to be a house (brothel) down the street, but they tore that down. Ike and Tina Turner stopped here, had to be in the early '60s. They played at a big nightclub, not three miles from here. That place is now tore down."

Ditto for the Foxhole, a once-famous restaurant and nightclub that stood directly across the street from the Golden Garden Country Club and now is a very unremarkable vacant lot. "That closed down, oh, 10 years ago," says Gates. "Her husband died -- at least he got killed -- and she left the business and moved away." Gates pauses, adjusts his glasses. "All of them just about gone."

The door squeaks open. A shaft of light slashes the wall. A preteen boy with a long scar across his scalp walks in: "Can I have a sodee?"

Walter Gates: "I think I'm a mighty lucky man."
Wm. Stage
Walter Gates: "I think I'm a mighty lucky man."

"What kind?" asks Gates

"Any kind," says the kid, slapping some change on the counter.

"You may have enough left over for a pack of gum," remarks Gates.

"One of the cleanup boys," says Gates as the kid walks out. The bar's interior is clean and tidy, and Gates likes to keep up the appearance of the premises as well. "People drink, throw cans in the street along with old shoes and hats," says Gates. "I think they do it at night." This policing of the area not only gives the place an aura of respectability, it provides a few neighborhood kids with pocket change.

Walter Gates has always been an authority figure -- at least for as long as Eugene Redmond can recall. "The name rang throughout the community when I was a kid," he says. "Policemen were seen as mediators. They presided over the community like elders. Understand that this was during segregation, so that black police officers arrested only black people, and because we lived in a segregated society, most of us in the south end of East St. Louis lived closer to our policemen, our professionals. We interacted with them more than we would today. Gates, on top of being a policeman, was also a businessman. He owned an establishment, and that gave him an added boost, an image, a certain degree of clout. So if you owned a business, you were a central figure in the community, and if you were also a policeman, you were big."

If it hadn't been for the kindness of a neighbor, Gates might never have wound up on the force, for police officers have to be able to read wanted posters and write reports.

St. Louis has its share of former Mississippians, individuals or entire families moving up from the Delta region to find decent work at places such as Carter Carburetor, Scullin Steel and American Can. In 1921, like so many others, Gates left Mississippi for the lights of St. Louis. He worked at odd jobs for a while, and though he wanted better, he was hindered by a lack of education. One day, he recalls, a woman in his neighborhood asked him how far he had gone in school. "I told her I'd made it all the way through second grade," he says. She began tutoring him in reading and writing "out of the goodness of her heart, God bless her."

Somehow the military passed him by -- "I was too young for World War I, too old for World War II," he asserts jokingly. Gates says he got his job on the police force "through politics." His wife, Nevida "Silk" Gates, a committeewoman with a reputation for pulling in votes, was active in Republican politics in East St. Louis. In fact, it was Nevida who bought the property that was to become the Golden Garden Country Club. Walter and Nevida ran the lounge for years. "This was always a place where the neighborhood people can come and have a good time," he says. Gates retired from the force in 1962, and Nevida died in 1967. Since then, he's been a solo act behind the bar. "You hire someone to work for you, they steal more than they're worth," he says with a shrug. "I do it all myself."

Well, that's not quite true. Some of his children drop in from time to time to check up on him and bring provisions. Gates says he has 12 children by 12 different women -- which, if true, makes him the Benjamin Franklin of the East Side in terms of fecundity. One of his children happens to visit with her two daughters this very afternoon. Sandra Calhoun, 38, a nurse's assistant, only stays for a few minutes, though long enough to remark on her father's vim. "He'll climb the ladder and get up on the roof," she says, shaking her head in amazement. "Anything needs to be fixed, he's going to fix it. Dad never got old to us," she adds. "He was always old."

« Previous Page
Next Page »