Reporters who wanted to talk to Bill Gates had to get past Pam Edstrom first.
Smart, tough and funny, Edstrom was known inside Microsoft Corp. as the “Gates Keeper,” a nod to more than 30 years spent shaping, protecting and — many said — creating the image of the company’s founder as a bemused, bespectacled genius, a sort of high-tech cross between Harry Potter and Gandhi.
Edstrom, who graduated from Minneapolis West High School and the University of Minnesota before finding her fortune in the Pacific Northwest, died on March 28 of cancer. She was 71.
Edstrom was among the first 200 employees of Seattle-based Microsoft before leaving to co-found a public relations firm, now known as WE Communications. With more than 700 employees, it’s one of the largest independently owned PR firms in the world.
Edstrom continued to represent Gates and Microsoft, carving out her own legend among the journalists who cover business, technology and culture. Author Gary Rivlin once wrote an article about his quest to get an interview with Gates; the piece reads more like a profile of Edstrom’s lively and tenacious personality.
“Our first talk [with Edstrom],” Rivlin wrote, “proved typical of the dozen-plus conversations we’d have over the next 12 months: a gossipy marathon, intimate and revealing, in turns friendly and combative.”
Edstrom’s own daughter, Jennifer, got past the gatekeeper with a bestselling book, “Barbarians Led by Bill Gates,” co-written with longtime Microsoft developer Marlin Eller. The tell-all book on Microsoft’s early years, published in 1998, led to a rift between mother and daughter, as they reportedly didn’t speak for a time after the book came out.
“It’s hard enough to control Gates,” Edstrom told the New York Times, “much less your daughter.”
Jennifer Edstrom declined to be interviewed.
Pam Edstrom was a proud U graduate and always maintained contact with the school, said Evan Johnson, a spokesman for the University of Minnesota Foundation.
“Pam was a good friend to the university,” he said. “She was a great partner. She wanted to see impact. She challenged the university to be more active. She really believed in the value of liberal arts, and the value of a liberal arts degree as a force for business.”
Edstrom was important in helping the university connect with alumni and potential donors in the Northwest, Johnson said, as well as experts who might be able to assist faculty members in their research. She also served on a fundraising committee for the university’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA).
Edstrom was the commencement speaker at the CLA’s graduation ceremony in 2016. In her address, she spoke of growing up with a single mother who encouraged her early dream of becoming an FBI agent or a police chief.
But at barely 5 feet tall, she was too short for law enforcement. Graduating with a sociology degree, she studied the communication methods used by criminals, a tack that helped set her on the road to a communications career.
Edstrom told the graduates about pitching a story to the New York Times about Microsoft and its then-unknown, 20-something leader. The paper rejected the idea, but she later got Gates on the cover of Time magazine.
“After that, the New York Times called me,” she said.
In addition to her daughter, Edstrom is survived by her husband, Joseph Lamberton, four stepchildren and seven grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for April 22 in Lake Oswego, Ore.