The Marvelous Mr. Gates

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

Older, in fact, than he thought he was. Back in February, just before Gates' 100th birthday, his friends and family had planned a big celebration with a parade and lots of fanfare. But that month another daughter, June Vardiman, checking into her dad's Social Security records, discovered that Gates had been born in 1895 and not 1900 as he had thought. Gates took the news philosophically. After all, what's five more years when you're already at the tippy-top of the longevity charts?

"It must be true," concedes Gates, explaining that he grew up in rural Mississippi, one of 10 children, and the record of who begat whom and the pertinent dates were inscribed in the family Bible. "A preacher borrowed that Bible," says Gates, "and the bastard never brought it back." So the records were lost -- to the family, anyway. Uncle Sam kept track, however.

So Gates kept on, living throughout the 20th century and at the cusps of two others. On Feb. 28, the 105th anniversary of his nativity, he was given a parade in East St. Louis, which lasted two hours and, with a caravan of 30 cars, ended up at the lounge. Many stayed for drinks and carried on until the early hours. "I rode in a white limousine from one of Carl Officer's funeral parlors. It was first-class all the way," says Gates, "the best time I ever had in my life." And that's saying a lot.

"The parade was beautiful," says East St. Louis Police Chief J.W. Cowan. "We left the police department here, where he worked for a number of years, and made our way out to his place. Mr. Gates did have exemplary service while he was here, and it was an honor and a pleasure to have one of our police officers return at a ripe old age like that. As you know, most of the old guard are gone."

On a subsequent visit to the Golden Garden Country Club, Gates' step has lost its hitch. The bad toe has stopped being angry. Turns out he was wearing his shoes too tight, so his daughter Sandra took him to the shoe store and got him a new pair of comfy shoes. That fixed the problem. "They give me a really nice walk," says Gates, beaming.

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