With the exception of college and a few years at Camp Lejeune as a young military bride, Alma Gates has spent the whole of her long life in comfortable houses in the Palisades.
Her forebears were pioneers in Utah who achieved wealth and prominence. She attended private schools and acknowledges that she had a privileged upbringing.
But her idyllic youth also was darkened by shadows.
“My mother was an alcoholic,” Gates said. “She was beautiful, smart, gifted – a concert pianist. Yet she had this horrible curse. It was a hard way to grow up. It’s had an effect on my sisters and me. There was an element of shame to our life, of keeping it secret, afraid of what you were going to find. You couldn’t count on Mommy.”
Gates and her two sisters did have stable influences in their lives. They had loving grandparents who came east every year to see them. Their father, Glen Hardy, was a government lawyer who provided for and took good care of his family. The nuns who taught them were strict but caring.
And there was Leila Buggs.
Leila Buggs – “Buggsie” to the family – cooked and cleaned and took care of the Hardy family home.
Gates and her sisters attended the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart.
“Buggsie was famous for her lemon pies,” Gates recalled. “She was the best cook. When they wanted six lemon pies for the school bazaar, they were there – Buggsie had them ready.”
Buggs took pride in her skills in the laundry.
“Every day she had to take care of three uniforms for three girls, in summer a white blouse and a cotton jumper,” Gates said. “She always had our blouses ready to go.
“She loved starch. You could literally stand them up. They were beyond crisp.”
Buggs took Gates on little outings that are now happy memories.
“There used to be an open-air market on K Street,”Gates said. “She took me there one year before Thanksgiving to buy herbs. It was a great experience.”
Streetcar lines still crisscrossed the District in those days, and both Buggs and Gates’ father used it to get to work. In those days, government attorneys had not yet become masters of the universe, ensuring insulation like Sherman McCoy. There was a stop at the corner of V Street and Reservoir Road, just below the Hardy house on 48th Street.
“Buggsie would take the streetcar to work every day,” Gates said. “One time I went with her to her house. It was far away.”
Buggs was black, but Gates said race did not enter her thinking – or her feeling – about the woman who played a deeply maternal role in her life.
“The fact that Buggsie was black never came into the picture. We never talked about that. She played a huge part in our lives. She was an incredible woman.”
Other strong women, and men, have marked Gates’ life. She takes pride in her family’s part in building the country, especially Utah, where both her parents grew up.
“My father’s grandparents were pioneers,” she said. “They travelled across the plains. I take a lot of strength from my Mormon heritage.
“My mother’s grandfather was German, and started the first brewery in Salt Lake City. The other side were from Scotland. My great-grandfather was a prize-winning cattleman. It was all open range then.”
The Catholic religion was passed down in Gates’ family from her mother’s side.
“My mother’s mother was a pioneer in her own right,” Gates said. “She was responsible for building the cathedral in Salt Lake, raising money, making sure the missionaries [were honored].”
Gates regularly visited her Utah relatives in the summer. She recalls visits to an aunt there and the practical lessons in housekeeping she learned from her.
“At Aunt Kay’s I stayed in a big beautiful old bed,” Gates said. “I went down to breakfast, and afterward she said, ‘Get dressed and make your bed.’ ‘Make my bed?’ ‘I’ll show you.’ It had a lace overlay. It was a half-day production to make that bed.”
Her father’s parents would make annual visits to Washington.
“Nana May was a very proper lady,” Gates remembered. “She was always dressed up, a hat, gloves. When she came east she would always bring a box, with her teapot, her tea, apple sauce and apricot jam, homemade by her.
“My grandfather carried a beautiful repeater pocket watch. It would ring the quarter hours with a beautiful chime. I would say, ‘Grandaddy let me see your watch.’”
Gates had gained definite ideas about life in the West from Saturday films at the neighborhood’s MacArthur Theater, a building that now houses CVS. So on an early family drive out to Utah, she was eager to see first-hand the life depicted by Hollywood.
“Every Saturday we saw the cowboys in the movies,” she said. “The cowboys were real. So it was very hard to get to Salt Lake and not see any.”
At the time of Gates’ birth at the old Columbia Hospital near the campus of George Washington University (GWU), her parents, Alberta and Glen Hardy, were living at the Westchester on Cathedral Avenue. It was her first home.
“Our daughter lives there now,” she said. “If Harry [Gates’ husband] and I had to move, that’s where we would go.”
The Hardy family moved to the Palisades when Gates was an infant. They lived in a succession of houses, finally building one on 48th Street when she was 11.
The Safeway on MacArthur Boulevard is the setting for some of Gates’ mid-century Palisades memories.
“As a little kid I loved to meet Daddy at the bus stop in front of the Safeway,” she said. “The store had an open meat counter with sawdust on the floor in those days, with real [butchers]. How different shopping is today – you used to get the meat cut for you to order.
“The day of the two-inch steak is gone.”
Gates spent her first three years of school at Hardy Elementary. Then she transferred to Stone Ridge.
“School life was strict,” she said of her days under the tutelage of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic order of nuns. “We stood up when adults entered the room. We walked in two straight lines in silence, wore white gloves and curtsied, were not allowed to wear pants.”
Contrary to the knuckle rapping of legend, the Sacred Heart nuns did not administer corporal punishment.
“Our nuns were not allowed to touch you,” Gates said. But their voices and sharp eyes and the awe inspired by the rustling black habits they wore ensured the girls toed the line.
“To this day I remember a day when I was in the eighth grade. The head nun of the upper school looked at my shoes and said, ‘Alma May Hardy, those shoes are disgraceful. That will not be allowed in high school.’”
Not all of Gates memories of the nuns involve scowls.
“Mother Sessions, the librarian, was the loveliest person,” she said. “She had the best manner with kids, very caring.”
Gates said the quality of education was high, and that the small class sizes – her graduating class numbered 21 – was an advantage.
“In general the best education I got was at Stone Ridge,” she said. “The English classes in college were not as good. Because our classes [in high school] were small, you couldn’t fudge.”
After high school, Gates continued to entrust her education to the Sacred Heart nuns. But she lit out for a different part of the country, heading to Maryville College (as it then was) in St. Louis.
“I had some friend who’d gone to Maryville and spoke highly of it,” Gates said. “I’m really glad I went there to college. It opened a whole new world to me. I liked the genuine character of people in the Midwest. There was no pretense, none.”
After college, Gates returned to Washington and enrolled in the then newly-established Washington Montessori Institute, training to be a teacher according to the method of the Italian pedagogue Maria Montessori.
“That was the first foray into getting Montessori education instituted in the U.S. in a formal way,” Gates said. “[The Montessori training] changed my life totally – totally. I was like a child myself going through the program. I sent both my children through Montessori schools.”
About the same time Alma Hardy was introduced to the work of Maria Montessori, she was also introduced to Harry Gates.
He was a Long Islander, a young officer in the Marine Corps stationed at Quantico.
Alma Hardy was planning to be married a few months after she finished college in St. Louis, but the engagement ended.
“The day I was supposed to get married, I met Harry on a blind date,” she said. “We had a good time. I had left my scarf in his car. He called, and asked me to go to the Phillips Gallery. We saw Renoir’s ‘Luncheon at the Boating House.’ We always remember it. You can spend hours looking at the painting.”
They were married the year after they met, and set out for North Carolina, where Mr. Gates had been assigned to Camp Lejeune.
A streak of volunteerism has characterized Gates’ life since she was a girl. She was a candy striper in high school and volunteered at St. Louis University Hospital while in college. She kept up her volunteer work at Camp Lejeune. Already she had developed the outspokenness that is still occasionally on display at meetings of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D, of which she has been a member off and on since 2002.
“I ran the general medicine clinic at the base hospital,” Gates said. “An admiral’s wife reamed me out for the blue sweater I was wearing. I asked her, ‘Is it more important that I be here or that I have on a white sweater?’”
When Harry Gates got out of the Marines after three years at Camp Lejeune, they returned to Washington.
“I would have loved to move to St. Louis, but Harry was having none of it,” Alma Gates said.
Her husband went to work, first for Sears, then for 28 years at Fahrney’s Pens downtown.
Gates’ working life included stints at the GWU medical school, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Alliance of Museums. She retired from the National Cultural Alliance.
Describing all the political and cultural bodies where Gates has volunteered her time would require a longer, second article. Suffice it to say that she has maintained the sense of noblesse oblige and community service that is part of her family tradition.
Alma and Harry have two children and three grandchildren.
Gates has countless stories about the Palisades. One, involving another couple who formerly lived in the neighborhood, stands out in the week following the death of First Lady Barbara Bush. Gates reckons that the incident occurred while George H.W. Bush was vice president.
“I used to do a lot of needlepoint,” Gates said. “So did Mrs. Bush. I went in to buy some wool at a needlepoint store on MacArthur Boulevard. She was sitting there, working on a rug. She was very friendly, and happy to talk about the rug she was working on.”
In an email after she was interviewed, Gates reminisced further about the Bushes.
“When George H.W. Bush was president, one year the White House Christmas tree had needlepoint ornaments,” she wrote. “It’s the only time I’ve ever visited the White House at Christmas and it was well worth the long line and standing in the freezing cold. The ornaments were absolutely beautiful and very special. I wonder what happened to them?”
Gates said her neighborhood is characterized by stability.
“In the Palisades you are apt to find a of people who have been here a long time, what you might call anchor families” she said. “For kids growing up, it’s important to have them.”
In a life spanning the Second World War, fourteen presidential administrations and the opening decades of the 21st century, Alma Gates is herself such an anchor.
The website of ANC 3D, with a list of the organizations Gates serves as a volunteer: anc3d.org/commissioners
Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” the painting that figured in the early days of Mr. and Mrs. Gates’ courship, can be seen on the website of the Phillips Gallery at phillipscollection.org/collection/boating-party.