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W.Va. filmmaker-activist Bob Gates dies at 69

Gazette file photo
Filmmaker Bob Gates stands in his studio in 1980.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Robert F. "Bob" Gates Jr., a noted West Virginia filmmaker who focused on the impacts of mining on coalfield residents and the environment, died Saturday at the age of 69.

Gates helped found the West Virginia Filmmakers Guild. He also was a member of various environmental groups over the years, including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

"Bob really enjoyed making films," Molly Moorhead, Gates' wife since 1993, said Monday. "The films he made show his own views and passions. He felt they had to be made. He was a great guy."

Gates worked as a chemical and computer engineer for Union Carbide until 1971, when he was laid off. Soon after, he became a full-time photographer and filmmaker, shooting video as well as recording music and sound tracks for his movies.

A day after Pittston Coal's sludge dams collapsed at the head of Buffalo Creek on Feb. 26, 1972, Gates visited the 17-mile-long hollow in Logan County.

Gates took scores of photographs -- on the ground and in the air -- documenting the devastation created by the flooded river, which killed 125 people and left thousands homeless. He later released a DVD featuring many of the photographs he took.

In 1977, Gates released his first film, "In Memory of the Land and People" -- about the environmental damages caused by strip mining in Appalachia and other areas of the country. The music of composer Béla Bartók, local songs and comments from local people are featured throughout the film.

Steve Fesenmaier, a film historian who worked for the West Virginia Library Commission for 31 years, wrote that the film was shown in Congress and helped motivate national legislation regulating strip mining.

Gates later produced two more films about the impacts of mountaintop removal mining -- "All Shaken Up: Mountaintop Removal Blasting and Its Effects on Coalfield Residents" and "Mucked."

Gates produced "All Shaken Up" in 1998, working with Penny Loeb, a reporter for U.S. News and World Report. Loeb interviewed 45 people from West Virginia coal towns near mountaintop removal mines. The film displayed damages to their homes, wells, streams and forests. It also focused on the negative psychological impacts frequent and continual blasting had upon local residents.

Gates photographed the dramatic demolition and collapse of 11 tall smokestacks at the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass plant in Kanawha City after it closed in the early 1980s.

In 2003, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston displayed a collage of photographs Gates took during Gov. Bob Wise's inauguration speech at the Capitol earlier that year.

Gates also shot portraits and films featuring interesting individuals, such as "Building a Cello With Harold," produced in 1995.

Harold Hayslett, a South Charleston resident, was a well-known builder of violins and cellos. Gates produces a feature-length documentary showing Hayslett making a new cello from high-quality woods, from start to finish.

Back in 1977, Gates produced the "Morris Family Old Time Music Festival," which is also available on DVD.

Gates died on Groundhog Day, after having hosted many Groundhog Day parties at his home in Charleston over the years, Moorhead said.

"Bob loved Groundhog Day," she said. "I took him a card, with a little groundhog on it, when he was in the hospital. He was up and about, but apparently started to bleed again and they couldn't fix it."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Monday. Terri Marion, a friend of Gates' family, said there would be a memorial celebration later this month at the Empty Glass Café, on Elizabeth Street, to celebrate Gates' life and films, which will be shown during the event. A date has not been determined, she said.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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