Some people are put on the earth to guide, love and inspire. Hugo “Bubble Gum Man” Bates, who died Monday, was one of those people.
Known for his seemingly endless supply of Bazooka, Bates gave more than bubble gum to Limestone County. He lent his ears to those who needed a listener. He used his voice and his smile to lift spirits. He was a helper, and it's the time he spent encouraging countless others that will remain his legacy.
Those who've attended athletic events, band camps, school board meetings and other community activities more than likely know “Bubble Gum Man.” He's been an anchor in the community for about five decades.
Former Athens golf and volleyball coach Janet Latham told The News Courier in 2014 that Bates had been around Athens programs longer than almost anyone at the school.
Former Athens softball coach Randy White told The News Courier in 1999 that he had never seen Bates in a bad mood; rather, he was always happy and acted like he was on top of the world.
“I've never seen anybody like him … he always sees the good in everybody,” White said.
Bates, who retired from 3M after 30 years, started helping when his children were in school.
Bates had moved to Athens after marrying his wife, Billie, who he met at Sunny Hill Church of Christ. The couple had three children, Suzanne, June and Houston, who all graduated from Athens.
“When my sister and brother were in school, he was always active in what we were doing,” Suzanne Sims, one of Bates' daughters, told The News Courier in 2014, when he was being inducted into the Limestone County Sports Hall of Fame. “He was always there. He does the little things that people will notice more after he's gone. Getting the refreshments and doing the laundry and everything else that goes into the game.”
Sims said when she thinks of her daddy, he could be in a crowd with anybody, and he had a story to tell and to hear.
Sharing bubble gum
Bates wasn't inducted in the Hall of Fame for winning championships or setting records. He never even played high school sports. Instead, he worked in the fields with his father, who was a sharecropper, and attended eight schools. Most were in Limestone County, including Reid, Wheeler, East Limestone, Mount Rozell, West Limestone, Owens and Tanner. He graduated from Tanner in 1955.
Bates was inducted into the Hall of Fame because of his positive influence. Some have said a gym should be named after Bates.
“Some men like to fish. Some like golf, and some like to go out with the boys,” Bates told The News Courier in a 1999 interview. “I prefer to spend time with kids at ball games.”
What Bates was most famously known for was the gum he handed out to everyone he encountered. It started in the 1950s as a way to cheer up children who might be having a bad day at Sunny Hill Church of Christ, but it morphed into a tradition.
“It doesn't cost much,” Bates told The News Courier in 1999. Bates said he never drank or smoked but instead chose to spend his money on bubble gum. The gum, he said, allowed him to form lifelong friendships.
One of those lasting friendships was with LaVinson Rogers, who was in the Athens Band from 2009 until 2013.
Bates “was always there,” Rogers said. “He was more than just the water man. He was our biggest supporter. He was there for every practice, every game, every competition. You name it, he was there.”
Rogers said when he found out about Bates death, it hit him hard, like losing a grandparent.
“Everybody knows Mr. Hugo, the Bubble Gum Man, the Water Man,” Rogers said. “He was a really nice man, and I hate he is gone. Future generations will not be able to witness the same thing me and my classmates did. He was just a good man, overall.”
Bates' commitment to the community didn't stop with band or athletics, though he did receive the 1991 Outstanding Service Award from the Athens Booster Club. He was also grand marshal of the Reliance Bank Christmas parade in 2016 and grand marshal of Athens High's homecoming parade one year.
Yearbooks at Athens High School and HEART Academy at Julian Newman Elementary School have been dedicated in his honor. Some might not know Bates was also called the “poet laureate” of AHS because of his love of reading and writing poetry.
Former Athens band percussion instructor Neal Flum told The News Courier in 1999 that he had the “greatest admiration and respect for Hugo,” adding, “He gives for the spirit of giving.”
An Athens icon
“Athens lost a true icon on Monday,” Athens Board of Education President Russell Johnson said. “Mr. Hugo touched so many lives in this community and always had a piece of gum and a nice story to share.”
Johnson, who has known the Bates family since the 1970s, said he remembers the support Bates gave the Athens High School band, where Bates' portrait hangs, and Julian Newman Elementary School, where they framed a vest he used during his time as the school's crossing guard.
“In the decades I've known him, I never heard an unkind word from him,” Johnson said.
Bates was a regular visitor of a summer youth camp run by Johnson.
“Once I commented to him about a young boy wearing the same shirt five days in a row,” Johnson said. “Mr. Hugo's response: 'Maybe he has five identical shirts.'
“It was a true blessing to know him, and there is no doubt gum is being passed out in heaven today.”
When he heard about Bates' death, Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks said it was a sad day in Athens.
“We truly lost another classic Southern character,” he said. “He was such a kind, gentle person who touched so many lives, especially kids' lives.”
Marks recalled Bates asking several children, “Has anybody told you they love you today?” and following up with, “Well, I'm telling you I love you.”
Melonie Manning called Bates a kind soul.
“It's probably been 20 years since I saw him last, but I remember being a kid and bumping into him at ball games,” Manning said. “I wasn't exactly popular in school. In fact, I felt pretty insignificant most of time. When I'd see Mr. Hugo, I even remember thinking, 'He probably won't have any bubble gum for me.' But after taking the time to ask about how I was doing, he'd slyly slip a piece of bubble gum into my hand before he went about his difference-making day.
“Mr. Hugo took the time to make me feel seen, to make me feel important. I know I'm not alone in that.”
Bates also shared his spirit with local news reporters.
Limestone County Archivist Rebekah Davis, who was once a reporter at The News Courier and interviewed him and others back in 1999, said the first time she met him, she thought he was a little weird.
“I was a cub reporter, out covering a story for The News Courier, when an older gentleman walked up to me with a smile, pressed a piece of Bazooka bubble gum into my hand and walked away without a word,” Davis said. “When I came back to the newsroom and told my coworkers about this strange man, they said, 'Oh! You met Hugo!'"
“Hugo Bates was indeed weird, in the best sense of the word,” she said. “His heart was full of a level of kindness, gentleness and generosity that is exceedingly rare in this world. He must have given away a million pieces of bubble gum in his life — not to mention his handmade and personally inscribed wooden chairs, cradles and sleighs like the ones he gave to me over the years — and that was just the tip of the iceberg.”
Davis said she could write a book about the many things Bates did for people, but it all comes down to this: “Hugo made you feel special, because to him, you really were special. Being around him made you want to be a better person. It made you want to be the person you saw reflected to you in his kind eyes and ever-present warm smile.”
City of Athens Grant Coordinator and Communications Specialist Holly Hollman is also a former reporter with fond memories of Bates.
"It is hard to fathom I won't hear him call me pretty and hand me a piece or two of Bazooka gum, or find a piece on my office desk that he sent me through someone else,” Hollman said.
She said she didn't know how talented he was at woodwork until he asked her to meet him at Cracker Barrel. He wanted to take her out to lunch along with Davis.
“We had the best time laughing and sharing stories,” Hollman said. “After lunch, he wanted us to follow him to his vehicle. He had made each of us a wooden chair. Underneath, he carved a message. Mine has, 'To my friend Holly Hollman. From Hugo Bates. Summer 2003. Thanks for your friendship!! Love, Hugo.' He included the Bible verse Mark 9:36.”
In 2018, she walked into her office to find a wooden cradle he left for her birthday, along with a special carved message.
Davis said a couple years ago, Bates also went to see her on her birthday to give her a beautiful wooden cradle he had made for her. She said he stayed at least an hour, just talking about life.
“He told me that when he was young, he had some experiences with a harsh person that made him set his mind that he would be a kind husband, father and friend,” Davis said. “From what I could see, he lived that out with purpose every day of his life. As far as I am concerned, Hugo Bates will forever hold the title of 'Nicest Man in Athens.' He was a precious friend to all who truly made Athens a better place to call home.”
"I truly believe he woke up every single day thinking of ways to be kind to people,” Hollman said.