April 01, 2015
Signe Gates ’71, vice chair of the university’s Board of Trustees, counts her parents and her years at Susquehanna as the most impactful influences on her life. The daughter of an asbestos worker and a secretary, Gates was a first-generation college student whose parents could not have been more proud when she entered Susquehanna.
“My parents had hard lives, but they were devoted to the happiness and success of my brother and me,” Gates says. “One of their goals was for me to go to college, and they loved Susquehanna.” Her mother would often drive up from their suburban Washington, D.C., home to visit. “Sometimes it would be for a day trip at a time when there were twolane roads between our home and Selinsgrove.”
Gates, who looked at other schools but immediately fell in love with Susquehanna, was comfortable on campus from the start, easily finding meaningful extracurricular activities and connecting with professors who left a lasting impression. The liberal arts education she received at Susquehanna and the people she encountered as an undergraduate set her on a trajectory that led to a law degree from the University of Michigan and eventually to Barnes Group Inc., where she served as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary until her retirement in 2010.
Gates’ gratitude and commitment to her alma mater have led to many years of sharing her time, talent and treasure with the university. The primary focus of her philanthropy has been its people.
Recently, she made a $1 million gift to establish the Signe S. Gates Fund for Excellence in Leadership. The gift is the largest from a living alumna in the history of the university. Intended as a long-term investment in the professional development of Susquehanna’s senior leadership team, the money follows Gates’ earlier contributions to recognize faculty and staff who demonstrate exemplary performance. “Research shows that opportunities for professional development and recognition of work well done, especially when someone has gone above and beyond the norm, are among the most important things people look for from employers. It’s good to say thank you to those whose work has moved Susquehanna forward,” Gates says.
Given that and the desire to create conditions necessary to maximize the contributions of all members of the university community, as spelled out in Susquehanna’s last strategic plan, Gates established an appreciation fund in 2006. The Signe S. Gates Appreciation Fund was set up to acknowledge members of the university community who exhibit exemplary performance. Consistent with her commitment to professional development, the recently established Gates Fund is focused on developing and maximizing the leadership skills of the senior leadership team so that it is best prepared to address the challenges of the coming decade.
Philanthropy and mentoring have been recurring themes in her life, says Gates, acknowledging that it was a dear friend who first referred to her as a philanthropist. “I had not seen myself that way. I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also had some breaks. And I’ve tried to embrace opportunities when they’ve been presented to me,” she says. “My goal is to live with gratitude. I learned that from my parents.”
Her gratitude has led to a desire to give back. Gates recalls a line from the late Charles Degenstein, businessman, philanthropist and longtime friend and supporter of Susquehanna. “Charlie said ‘giving is fun.’ He was a wise man.”