By LESLIE COLLINS
July 3, 2013
Ollie Gates will forever be a hero in the eyes of Gladstone Elementary School.
From his gentle nature to his giving spirit, he’s left an indelible impression in the lives of the students and faculty.
Three years ago, Gladstone Elementary chose Gates as its first hero to kick off the “Heroes Project,” a project aimed at teaching students about local, ordinary people who do extraordinary things. At the time, the Gladstone first graders learned all about the Kansas City native entrepreneur and president of the family business, Gates Bar-B-Q. They toured the Buck O’Neil Center, the Gates Bar-B-Q visitor’s center and headquarters, ate at the restaurant and even toured the plant where the iconic barbecue sauce is bottled. They penned poems about Gates, drew portraits of him and created posters honoring their local hero. To culminate the project, Gladstone held an assembly in Gates’ honor and the first graders performed their original song about Gates.
Three years later, Gates and his family still keep in touch.
“It’s just amazing that we kept the connection going,” said Missie Condit, vice principal at Gladstone Elementary. “It’s important to the kids and it’s important to him and his family. These kids love him because he has done so much for them and done so much for the city.
“When I think of Ollie Gates, I think of Kansas City. He’s an icon in our city. I think about a man that continues to give to everyone. He truly loves his community and his family. He loves his newly adopted Gladstone family and you just can’t get any better than that.”
For Jafar Al Hassan, now a third grader, Gates continues to influence his life. Every time Gates visits the school, Al Hassan dresses up and wears Gates’ favorite colors – red, white and blue. He still remembers visiting the barbecue sauce plant which fascinated him.
“It was really fun over there,” he said. “I just like looking at factories – the way they move the machines, how the things go in lines, and how they’re in order.”
He also remembers his free sample bottle of barbecue sauce.
“When I came back home, I told my mom to put the sauce on every food,” he said. “I said, ‘It works with this, it works with that, it works with meat.’ I just put it on. I finished the sauce in two days because it tasted really good.”
It’s evident how much Al Hassan admires Gates and he recalled his first experience of meeting his hero.
“I remember the first time we brought him in and greeted him. He gave me his hat to hold,” Al Hassan said with a smile. “I thought I was important (since he trusted me with his hat).”
Asked what Gates has taught him, Al Hassan said he’s learned to never be mean and to show kindness to others. He also learned a new checkers move, the double jump, when the school invited Gates over for a checkers tournament, Gates’ favorite game.
“I didn’t know you could do a double jump! I use it a lot when I play with my dad,” Al Hassan said. “He (Gates) was the first hero I ever had and that’s why I think he’s my favorite hero. He’s a hero because of the way he acts and how he’s kind to others… He rocks!”
Condit stressed that Gates is more than the president of a restaurant. He pushed for the Black Veterans Memorial at Paseo and 12th Street, re-ignited the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center project, helped revitalize the 12th Street corridor and funded a number of affordable housing developments. Gates continues to find opportunities for development projects like shopping centers in Kansas City, especially in the urban core, to beautify neighborhoods, create a safe environment and provide job opportunities.
“I think it’s important for our kids to understand that anyone can be a hero, that they can make a difference in this world,” Condit said.
Arzelia Gates, Gates’ daughter and head of community relations for Gates Bar-B-Q, has also become a part of the Gladstone family. She’s visited with the students on numerous occasions and helps arrange visits with her father.
When she began describing her father, she paused as her eyes watered.
“I’m proud,” she said of her father.
She described him as a visionary, dynamic, a man of strength and creativity.
“I just thought that (Heroes Project) was great because I think he’s a hero,” she said. “He’s truly my hero. He’s like an extension of the community. He has Kansas City in mind when he’s doing anything – developing or redeveloping.”
This year, one of Arzelia’s and Gates’ third grade visits included a trip to the Kansas City Zoo, which they arranged. The third graders skipped the yellow buses and rode to the zoo in style in trolleys, thanks to the Gates family.
Throughout the day, the students kept asking when Gates would arrive. According to Condit, they could hardly contain their excitement. When the students finally spotted Gates, all 37 of them rushed over to shower him with hugs.
“It was kind of like a frenzy,” Condit said. “He’s like a grandpa to them. He listens to them and he talks to them. They’re just attached to him. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but you can tell it’s a mutual feeling.”
Gates and Arzelia came armed with boxed lunches from Gates Bar-B-Q to share and visited with the students during lunch and at the polar bear exhibit. When one girl asked for Arzelia’s and Gates’ autograph, she started a chain reaction where every student lined up for an autographed zoo bracelet.
“That was so funny to me, but I said, ‘Sure.’ Red carpet treatment. That was really cute,” Arzelia said. “It’s so genuine. He loves it, not so much the autograph, as it is the affection the kids give and the genuineness of the children. There’s no pretense. They like him for who he is.”
The students were so lively, that others at the zoo began to ask who Gates was, Arzelia said.
When Condit asked one youngster her favorite part of the day, she said it was when Gates picked her up and hugged her.
For the Gates family, the students have been a blessing and the experience has provided a way for the Gates to further connect to a younger generation, she said. It’s been an avenue for sharing about the Gates restaurant legacy and Arzelia said she hopes to employ some of the students when they’re older.
“We’ll keep in touch with these kids until they get out of Gladstone,” she said. “When they’re in high school, I don’t know what we’re going to do. We might have to have a reunion.”
“We don’t ever want to take this opportunity for granted,” Condit said. “We’re fortunate. Not everyone gets to have Ollie Gates as their hero.”