He was a very modest man, so Buzz Oates would not be overjoyed with anyone praising his many business and civic accomplishments, which helped shape Sacramento in the last half century.
But when Oates died Saturday at 90, praising him and his remarkable life was all that came to mind.
What a man he was.
Marvin L. “Buzz” Oates was not only one of the richest people Sacramento has ever known, he was one of its most successful business leaders and civic benefactors. He was a man of God and a tough-as-nails negotiator who could run intellectual circles around much younger people who often were cowed in his presence.
For this tribute to this consequential Sacramentan, I tried to interview some big wheels in this town. But some of them didn’t want to be quoted for fear of saying something that would upset Oates even now.
He’s physically gone, but the impression he made on the current generation of Sacramento business leaders is indelible. It is marked by his success, kindness and those intimidating encounters when Oates would snap off complex mortgage tables in his head or tell you exactly how many nails were in his buildings or cite with machine-like precision the exact cost of drywall in his many development projects.
I met him late in his life and he asked me to explain my job, so I prattled on about newspaper commentary when he stopped me abruptly and said: “You’re supposed to connect the dots.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Do you?” he asked.
Not as well as you did, sir.
It wasn’t that Oates was menacing. He could be very kind. But if you didn’t engage his mind – his true power – you wouldn’t get very far.
More than anything, it was Oates’ ability to read people and clearly visualize ideas that set him apart and placed him in a select group of Sacramento movers and shakers.
He was in the company of giants that included Mort Friedman, Joe Benvenuti and Henry Teichert. These were lions. They were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. They occupied an intense mental space that was unrelenting. They never took a day off, never backed down. They are all gone now.
Yet Oates was the most accessible super-rich person you were likely to meet. He was very Sacramento in that he was always out in the community. His booth at the Zinfandel Grille was not foreboding. People sidled up to say hello and he was happy to see them.
At his memorial service on Thursday, a show of hands to signify those who were influenced by him, mentored by him or did business with him might block out the views of those seated in the back of Capital Christian Center.
Yes, Oates was a World War II bombardier who opened a locksmith business and built a $900 million fortune. He gave selflessly to charities and his Christian faith. He helped shape West Sacramento and made a huge difference in projects like the downtown Citizen Hotel. The list could go on and on.
But more than anything, Buzz Oates was loved. He loved Sacramento and showed it. It’s why this man will be deeply missed. We have too few like him.