ONTARIO – Gene Bates, one of the honorees at the sixth annual Vale High School Alumni Association Hall of Fame banquet last weekend, has long been associated with Vale sports and the community, although he spent his education career in Ontario.
Gene Bates, the longtime administrator at Ontario Middle School, graduated from Vale High School in 1956 and put Vale on the map during his high school years. A star athlete, Bates helped the football team win state championships in 1955 and 1956 and a state baseball title his senior year.
Mark Cornwell, a former colleague of Bates, wrote in his nomination of Bates, that the Viking grad went on to play baseball at Oregon State University in 1957, and was named the Most Valuable Player in the North Pacific Coast Conference in 1958 with the highest hitting percentage in the league. Then the Cleveland Indians drafted him.
He was a dedicated educator and mentor for those who worked under him, Cornwell said
Bates was an administrator at Ontario Middle School for more than 30 years, he oversaw the construction of the middle school’s gym and provided steady leadership to the staff during the school’s transition from a junior high to a middle school, Cornwell wrote.
“His name has been synonymous with Vale, Oregon for over 70 years,” Cornwell wrote.
Cornwell, who attended Ontario High School in the 1950s, is a former rival of Bates, who graduated from Vale High School in 1956.
Cornwell said Vale and Ontario always had a “good rivalry” and noted that he vividly recalls Bates, a tight end and defensive end, and sometime-kicker, nailing a Vikings’ game-winning field goal.
The former rivals later became friends when they had neighboring classrooms at Ontario Middle School, where they taught eighth-grade English, Cornwell said.
Bates played in the Cleveland Indians farm system for three seasons, with stints in North Dakota, New York, and Florida.
He decided to become a teacher and a coach and returned to college, earning an education degree from Eastern Oregon University in 1963.
Bates was named vice principal within his first three years and then principal in 1971.
The kind disciplinarian
Dennis Hironaka, a retired social studies teacher who taught at the middle school for more than 30 years, said Bates was his first principal. He said Bates hired him when he was in his early 20s right out of college.
Hironaka said Bates was a “disciplinarian” who did not let the kids get away with anything. However, he said that because of Bates’ time as a teacher, he had a good rapport with students and was respected.
Hironaka added that teaching and working at a middle school is difficult given the stage of development middle schoolers are going through.
“They’re racing hormones on wheels,” he said.
Bates concurred with Hironaka in that he was a disciplinarian.
“As a principal,” he said, “you’re a disciplinarian. Teachers don’t send you the good kids to the office to visit with you.”
Bates would reason with kids who ended up in his office.
Bates said he would tell the student that if they didn’t want to listen, he’d bring their parents in to decide whether they “would finish their schooling at home or here.”
Blunt and plain-spoken, Bates said he would level with problem students about how their behavior would play out in high school and beyond.
For Bates, it was about instilling in students the value of getting along with others.
Along the way, Bates’ pull-no-punches style ruffled some feathers.
“Some didn’t like me because I’d tell them that school’s not a place where you come and screw around and foul things up for other people. If you were one of those, you were probably on my list, and I didn’t tolerate that.”
Bates’ relationship-driven approach to leadership endures years after his retirement. Over the years, Hironaka said, Bates was loyal to his staff and was always there to make sure they had what they needed to do their jobs.
“It’s been years since he retired,” Hironaka said, “but he’s still Mr. Bates to all those people. They respect him and love him.”
Sheryl Yano recalled driving to Ontario from Oregon State University in 1986 for an interview for her first teaching job at the middle school.
“I was a female applying for the woodworking and metalworking shop class,” she said. “But he hired me that same day.”
Yano, who was not from the area, said Bates helped her acclimate to Ontario and, over the years, became a father figure.
“There were several of us that I think felt that way,” she said. “He was just so kind and was a great principal.”
Born and raised in Vale, Bates said when he was growing up there was no shortage of things to do to stay busy. The area bred in him a self-starter mentality.
“The best thing I learned, he said, was how to do things yourself and figure out what you’re going to do. You don’t wait for somebody to show you. You do it.”
With that, when he wasn’t winning state football and baseball championships, Bates was pumping gas at his family’s gas station, the Bates Service Station and Motel, which is now just a motel. He also bucked hay for farmers during the harvest.
Bates and his wife Irene raised four kids in Ontario, Geno, Michael, Elena and Angela and he has a grandson who plays for the Washington Commanders, formerly the Redskins. Bates and his wife currently live in Ontario.
A lifetime member of the of the Vale High School Alumni Association, Bates said getting inducted into the hall of fame is an honor.
The people in the alumni association do a lot of good for the community.
“What they do is wonderful,” he said. “There is no other place that raises the kind of money they do for their student scholarships.”
Bates said his advice to others in finding success in life is to work hard, “keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble.”
“Whatever you choose to do, do it right,” he said. “Don’t short-change yourself or whoever you’re working for. You make whatever you want to make out of what you’re doing.
“But if you don’t like it, get out. If you do, then work hard.”
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