Richard Cates ’47, a trial lawyer who was instrumental in the Watergate inquiry that led to former President Richard Nixon’s resignation, died Wednesday at age 85. Cates died of natural causes in his home in Madison, Wis.
“He was probably the most magnificent trial lawyer, at least in the state of Wisconsin, during the time that he was practicing law,” Bruce Davey, a partner at Lawton and Cates, S.C., Cate’s law firm, said. “He was very, very highly regarded — in fact, revered — by most lawyers and judges in this state.”
In November 1973, Cates joined a team of lawyers charged with examining the host of White House scandals that later became known as Watergate at the request of United States House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino, D-N.J., according to The Cap Times. At the time, Cates worked closely with recent Yale Law School alumna Hillary Rodham, now U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Had not Nixon resigned, [Cates] would have been the trial lawyer who tried him on the floor of the Senate,” attorney Scott Hassett, a partner at Lawton and Cates, said. “Then he would have been world-famous.”
Cates separated evidence from its chronological setting and created a concise theory for Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up, historian Stanley Kutler told The Cap Times.
Cates’s son, Richard Cates Jr. ’74, said his father was a “caring and endearing” individual who saw the best in people.
“He appreciated almost everybody for something they had to offer the world,” Richard Cates, Jr. said. “It was that ability to seize the beauty of living that I think was a major accomplishment for him. Through his life, he shared that with everybody he met. He was never on time for a meeting, and the reason was that everybody he met wanted a piece of him.”
Cates was motivated to help those who were “down and out” and believed that the law is “the vehicle to our freedom,” according to his son.
“It had to do with serving a need that he recognized our founding founders developed and the Constitution provided for,” he said.
Novelist David Cates, said that his father sought to represent those who were marginalized.
“He wasn’t at all interested in personal accomplishment,” David Cates said. “He was interested in making the world better, in using the law to keep the powerful from squashing the weak.”
Cates enjoyed “simple living” and found humor in everyday situations, David Cates said.
“Life was not full of hassles for Dad,” David Cates said. “Life was full of opportunities to get a laugh.”
Cates encouraged his children to take risks and feared the idea of missing out on an adventure, David Cates said.
Richard Cates, Jr., who was a member of the ski team at the College, said his father encouraged him to ski at an early age.
“When I was three years old, he put me on a pair of skis and let me ski down the golf course, and then he’d go down to the bottom and put me on his shoulders and carry me up the hill,” he said. “That’s what I did with my son [Eric Cates ’08]. I’d carry him up, and he ended up skiing for Dartmouth. And I say it all started because my dad slapped an old pair of skis on me and pushed me down the hill.”
Cates also took his four sons on 270-mile bike rides on three-speed bicycles to their cottage in northern Wisconsin when they were in their mid-teens, Richard Cates, Jr. said.
Cates’s other interests included agriculture, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts to farm, Davey said.
“No matter what he did farming, he didn’t get it right,” Davey said. “He had a one-row corn picker. Who ever would have thought that anyone would have made one? His cattle were always getting out and wandering all over the countryside.”
Cates was greatly amused by his failed farming attempts, Davey said.
“The farmers loved him because he sure as hell tried to get it right,” he said.
During World War II, Cates received officers training in the Marine Corps, but the war ended before he was deployed, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. After graduating from Dartmouth, Cates served in the Marines for a second time during the Korean War.
Cates treasured his time at Dartmouth and returned to the College for many reunions after he graduated, Richard Cates, Jr. said.
“It was a very important period in his life because World War II was over and he could return to being a citizen,” he said. “And he could do that at Dartmouth.”
Cates is survived by his wife, five children, 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.