I was born in Moss Side, Manchester, on 15 November 1930, a second son for Joseph and Lillian Bates. By that time my elder brother Joe was four years old. When I was three or four we moved to Wythenshawe. My parents were simple, working folk, God bless them. At age six I started at Rack House Primary School, down the road.
My earliest recollections are of attending Methodist Sunday School. By the grace of God I was blessed with a natural singing voice and I became a boy soprano in the local choir in the Button Lane Methodist church. The choirmaster, Mr. James Knight, took an interest in me and arranged for me to sing at St. Clement’s Church.
When World War Two started I was eight years old. I remember the neighbours collecting pots and pans in a large heap on the football field, to be melted down for ammunition. Around the age of nine or ten I was cooking the meals at home while my parents worked in the ammunition factory. During the war, unfortunately, it was necessary for me to go into Anderson air-raid shelters and consequently I developed asthma. I recall a bomb falling across the road and the neighbours joining us in our shelter.
From age ten to eleven I attended Yew Tree Central High School, but due to my asthma my attendance was irregular. My kindly choirmaster arranged for me to go and stay with his parents in Somerset in order to recuperate somewhat. After six months there I returned to Manchester and re-entered the same school year again.
I auditioned for the Cathedral Choir and was accepted as a boy soprano. I stayed there for some time until my voice broke at age fifteen and I had to withdraw from singing for a few years. In 1945 I left school and found my first job, which was with a health insurance society, there being no National Health Service (it was to be established in 1948). Later, when I developed a man’s voice, light baritone, I auditioned again for the Cathedral and joined the Cathedral choir as an adult. I also participated in the local amateur dramatic society. When I realised that I no longer believed in the words I was singing, mainly the Creed and the resurrection of the body, I began reading about other religions. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen I read extensively about all the ‘isms’ I could find in the library.
In 1946 I branched out and entered the commercial field, working for a food manufacturing company, initially in the office – and then, between the ages of eighteen to twenty-one, as an on the road sales representative, covering Yorkshire, Durham and North Humberside. I lived in a guest house in York.
My two best friends were artists and I studied painting too. I was beginning to realise that life held more than being a salesman and selling pickles! So rather than become a bohemian bachelor in York, I quit a good job, much to the surprise of my parents, and at twenty-one I returned to live in Manchester. There I embarked on a period of exploration, reading and searching, as I realised the life of ‘wine, women and song’ which I had been on the brink of, was not for me. I spent all my spare time reading, not knowing what I was looking for. I had lots of little jobs till I got settled into a marketing job as the marketing manager for a carpet sales company located opposite the Manchester Opera House.
The Amateur Operatics Society of Didsbury announced auditions and I was given a junior dramatic lead. In rehearsals for ‘Call Me Madam’ I played the part of Donald O’Connor. The production filled the Opera House for two weeks! It was during that time I happened to meet some people who told me they were Bahá’ís, and I asked ‘What’s Bahá’í?’ I attended weekly firesides at Betty and Harold Shepherd’s home, many of which were blessed by the presence of Mr Sugar, an elderly Bahá’í with a profound knowledge of the teachings. I also attended regular firesides at the home of Mr and Mrs Habibi in Manchester. In those early days my thirst for knowledge made me like a sponge and some intensive study of the Faith ensued. My parents were sure I had gone crazy!
After listening to many talks, and reading Bahá’í books, I eventually thought this all sounded good. I was not a deeply devoted religious person and, if anything, singing in the Christian church had raised a lot of questions that I could not understand. By listening to Bahá’í talks it all became a little clearer. Bahá’u’lláh’s explanation of God’s gradual spiritual and religious education of mankind through successive divinely inspired mouthpieces such as Christ, Muhammad, the Buddha and Bahá’u’lláh, who had all come to guide us in the purpose of our existence, to know and to worship the one God (the principle of progressive revelation) really took hold of my heart.
At that time Bahá’í meetings took place in an upstairs room above a butcher’s shop, a funny little run-down place in Shudehill. On my first visit to the Bahá’í Centre, I was taken in through the entrance and had to walk up the staircase along which carcasses of meat were hanging! So that was my introduction to the Bahá’í Faith, and my Bahá’í story started.
I became a Bahá’í on 3 September, 1957 in Manchester. The Local Spiritual Assembly that enrolled me included Puri and Habib Habibi (Chairman), Betty and Harold Shepherd, Albert Joseph, Leland Jensen, and Louis Ross-Enfield (Secretary).
In 1957 I also auditioned for a production of ‘The Vagabond King’, and was given a junior lead. Later that year I attended Teaching Conference where I became fired up with the thought of pioneering, so I moved to Eccles in North Manchester while keeping the same job. Owen and Gita Chaplin had a Bahá’í Centre in their large house there and rented rooms out to the young Bahá’ís. I boarded there with Nuri Sabet and Pam Tingle, who later married. It was my first pioneering move, and I joined the Eccles Operatic Society in order to make new friends. I auditioned and gained the leading role in a production of ‘White Horse inn’. Also at that time I participated as a singer in a Bahá’í entertainment group which visited hospitals; it was during this period that I heard of the passing of the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi.
At the next Teaching Conference in 1958, in response to the call for pioneers, I offered to go to York, and now came my first experience of the power of Bahá’u’lláh. When I returned to work on the Monday morning after the Conference, I told the manager that I was leaving my job and moving to York. He was shocked, asked why, and I proceeded to explain about the Bahá’í Teaching Conference and my volunteering to go to York. We ended up having a mini fireside! He said, “You know, if you go to York, there’s nothing we can do to help you because the ace sales rep. of the company lives there.” I replied that I was not expecting them to assist me in any way. He then asked if there was anywhere else I could go and I said there was, but I wasn’t sure where, so he asked me to find out. I phoned NSA Secretary Ian Semple who said, “O Ron, it doesn’t matter where you go so long as you go somewhere”, and he put a list of the goal towns in the post to me. Later in the week my boss said the company directors in Swindon wanted to discuss the situation with me. I took the list of Bahá’í goal towns to Head Office on the Thursday or Friday and met with the Chairman of the Board of an old-style, family company, who greeted me warmly. The National Sales Manager, the boss from Manchester, and the Chairman himself, worked down the list of goal towns and came to Loughborough. “Where’s Loughborough? Well if we take a piece off that man’s territory and a piece off this man’s territory we can create a new area. Bates, how would you like to be an outside sales rep. in Loughborough?” They also agreed to supply a car and not to worry about the wages. “Thank you very much!” I said.
There were four Bahá’ís in Loughborough when I moved there. Fairly soon afterwards the National Spiritual Assembly asked me to move to Nottingham and I was able to move with the same job. Marion Mihaeloff was one of the other Bahá’ís in Nottingham at that time.
I was appointed onto the National Teaching Committee and served with John Wade, Owen Battrick, Ernest and Joan Gregory, Alma Gregory and Marina Nazar. They held their monthly meetings at 27 Rutland Gate. Betty Reed was National Secretary at the time. In 1966 John and Rose Wade moved to the Bahá’í World Centre.
In February 1960 I went on Pilgrimage. I was the only westerner in the group and I stayed in No. 10 Haparsim, the Western Pilgrim House. I was escorted on my first visit to the Shrine of the Báb by Hand of the Cause John Ferraby. Mr and Mrs Leroy Ioas were living in No. 10 at the time and Mr and Mrs Horace Holley had just arrived from the United States. I was escorted to the Holy Places by Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi, who also acted as my interpreter. At the Mansion of Bahji I slept in the Esslemont Room.
At the next year’s Teaching Conference I offered to go pioneering anywhere in the world and eventually I was asked to go to Luxembourg. I resigned from my job and flew to Luxembourg arriving there on 8 October 1960. I missed the reception committee at the airport and made my way to the National Haziratu’l-Quds. There I met Miss Geertrui Ankersmit from Holland, who had already been in her pioneering post in Luxembourg for five years. Before that Geertrui had pioneered to Texel, the largest of the Dutch West Frisian Islands off the north coast of the Netherlands and had been awarded the accolade of Knight of Bahá’u’lláh. She it was who arranged for me to move out to the industrial city of Differdange and into the Putz Hotel. The whole area was covered in rust-coloured dust from the iron smelting works. There was one other Bahá’í there, Frances Wells, a pioneer from Alaska.
Next I looked for a flat and moved in with Andrew Gash, another pioneer from England. The 1960/61 winter was bitterly cold and in the lounge, where we slept, there was only a single kerosene stove.
Geertrui Ankersmit and I travelled to Langenhain, Germany, in November 1960 for the laying of the foundation stone for the Bahá’í House of Worship. We joined the British contingent of Bahá’ís there and it was lovely to see so many people whom we both knew. Hand of the Cause Amelia Collins represented the Bahá’í World Centre at the ceremony. I started to get to know Geertrui better and in January 1961 we became engaged. However, Geertrui’s father would only give consent to the marriage provided I got a job. I found it extremely difficult to get work. It was a ‘Catch 22’ situation: no job without a residence permit, no residence permit without a job. Finally I found employment as a junior order-processing clerk for Spencer Chemicals Company, marketing plastics. Ultimately I was made the Managing Director and closed down the firm in Luxembourg when it was bought out by Gulf Oil in 1964. Geertrui and I were married on 22 April 1961 – the first Bahá’í marriage in Luxembourg.
Shortly after I met Geertrui, we found out that she had been on pilgrimage just one group before mine. Hand of the Cause Mr Khazeh had asked Geertrui while on her pilgrimage when she was going to get married and that she should be married at her pioneer post (she was 34 years of age at the time). She always countered that she would marry an Englishman at age 35. Mr Khazeh had suggested that she and another English Bahá’í on pilgrimage with her, Ray Humphrey, should wed and borrow his car for a honeymoon on the Sea of Galilee and return to Luxembourg. But tall Geertrui took one look at short Ray, and they laughed! So Mr Khazeh promised to pray for her to find another nice Englishman soon. The following week I was on pilgrimage and visiting the Shrines. I think the angels above must have looked down and thought, “What was that prayer request we received last week for an Englishman? Send him to Luxembourg!” So that is my story of how our marriage was made in heaven!
In 1962 the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was elected. Amongst its members were: Ronald Bates (Chairman), Lesley Marcus (Secretary), Neil Brady (Treasurer), Honor Kempton, Suzette Hip, and Claude Levy. Geertrui missed the Convention as it coincided with the birth of our daughter Janine Lilian on 26 April 1962.
Between 1962 and 1964 I travelled to Norway, Sweden, England, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Finland, France and Greece. It was in Greece where I most likely contracted the hepatitis that prevented me from participating in the first International Bahá’í Convention for the election of the Universal House of Justice in the Holy Land at Ridván 1963. I sent a postal vote. Fortunately we were able to attend the Great Jubilee Conference a month later in the Royal Albert Hall, London, and on 28th of November of that year our son Michael Bart was born.
In June 1966 we moved to England and rented a house in Epsom for £45 a month, and two or three years later we bought a house nearby in Ewell, Surrey.
Whangerei, New Zealand, 1993
[Ronald passed away in New Zealand in June 2006. What follows has been written by his daughter, Lian Brott].
Ronald and Geertrui moved to the United Kingdom in June 1966 when Gulf Oil took over Spencer Chemicals, and his business career was growing from strength to strength. It was Ronald’s dearest wish to work full-time for his beloved Faith and he was therefore overjoyed when on 31st July 1970 he received an invitation from the Universal House of Justice to serve at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa. He resigned from his job, to the horror of his boss, who then took a second breath and said he wished he had a Faith for which he could give up all this.
Ronald and Geertrui, and we two young children, moved to Haifa immediately and there joined the Hands of the Cause, the nine House of Justice members and their wives and a staff of 14 at the Bahá’í World Centre – a very different situation from the many hundreds who now serve there.
On the first morning of our arrival my parents had the privilege of meeting with the Universal House of Justice. Immediately there was a tremendous bond because never before had there been a family with children invited to serve. As a result, children’s classes began at the World Centre because at that time Ian and Louise Semple had two children Michael and Nicholas, who had been born in Haifa, and also there was Nancy Gibson. Later the children of Abdu’l Raouf, the head gardener in Haifa, and Soveida Ma’ani, after her mother’s arrival to serve, also came to the classes and so the classes began, and grew and grew. We became one big, closely knit family with the many distinguished Bahá’ís serving there.
Ronald was asked to work in the Department of Israel Affairs and he became the Deputy Secretary-General of the Bahá’í International Community. The House of Justice wanted a Status Agreement signed between the Bahá’í International Community and the Israeli Government. Among other things, the Status Agreement with the State of Israel provides for recognition of the Bahá’í Faith as an independent world religion with its spiritual and administrative centres in the Holy Land, and provides protection for the Bahá’í Holy Places.
The Universal House of Justice doesn’t often mention the achievements of named Bahá’ís in their messages to the Bahá’í world but Ronald Bates and his colleague, international lawyer Donald Barrett, were mentioned in the message announcing the signing of the Agreement. Ronald was always humbled by the fact that he, a simple salesman from Manchester, was dealing with Ministers and Prime Ministers and Ambassadors and Heads of State.
It was the wish of the Universal House of Justice that Ronald should become a member of one of the local Rotary Clubs in Haifa. Rotary has as its main goal service above self to the community and building ties of worldwide friendship and understanding. Ronald thus had many opportunities to build up good relationships with many of the leaders and influential people in Haifa. He eventually became the President of the Haifa Rotary Club. During that year one of the Club’s achievements was the provision of a special park for handicapped children in Haifa. When he and Geertrui moved to Jerusalem for the last three years, and Ronald became Secretary-General of the Bahá’í International Community, he joined the Jerusalem Rotary Club and was again asked to serve as President.
During their last years in Jerusalem Ronald’s health was being affected by transient ischaemic attacks, tiny strokes due to debris in the blood becoming lodged in his brain. On such days he could not function clearly and his visual memory was badly affected, so he decided that if he could not be relied upon to meet with important officials on behalf of the Universal House of Justice and function to full capacity, he should retire.
After consultation with the Universal House of Justice, Ronald and Geertrui moved to New Zealand to join their daughter Lian and her husband. They arrived in Whangarei on 16th December 1991. Ronald served for a short period on the Whangarei Local Spiritual Assembly before having to twice undergo life-saving surgery performed on him at Greenlane Hospital in Auckland. Whilst living in Whangarei he gave talks to 10 different Rotary Clubs in the Far North of New Zealand about the Bahá’í Faith and the influence and important contributions the Faith has made and is making towards the United Nations organisation.
In 1998 Ronald and Geertrui moved to Kerikeri where Lian and her family were living and into their very comfortable cottage in the Kerikeri Retirement Village where they were very happy.
Of their 21 years of service in the Holy Land there are so many stories that could be told, but the following one especially springs to mind:
We had been in Israel for just a few months when the House of Justice asked Ronald to go to Switzerland to present a document to a Head of State who was there for medical reasons. The House had arranged for Ronald to meet up with a Bahá’í in Switzerland who would help him with the arrangements. Ronald did exactly as the House of Justice had instructed him to do, but then found that it became impossible as the Head of State had already made other arrangements. Ronald’s Bahá’í contact suggested he should proceed and do something else, but Ronald said ‘No, the House of Justice told me exactly what to do so I will contact them and ask them what to do now’. He contacted Haifa and explained the change of circumstances and the House of Justice gave him new directions.
When my parents left the World Centre after 21 years and the House of Justice met with them and thanked Ronald for his years of service, a House member noted, ‘When we sent you to Switzerland to contact this Head of State, and you contacted us to tell us that you had not been able to do as we had told you and asked what to do next, we knew we had the right man.’
That really exemplifies my father’s selflessness and purity of motive. He loved Bahá’u’lláh and found the greatest pleasure in putting the needs of the Faith first in his life, throughout his life.