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To relieve the pressures of programming, Evans took up mountain climbing. One day Gates got a call from the headmaster: Evans had been killed in a fall. "I had never thought of people dying," Gates says. There is a flicker of emotion. "At the service, I was supposed to speak, but I couldn't get up. For two weeks I couldn't do anything at all."
After that he became even closer to Paul Allen. They learned an artificial-intelligence language together and found odd jobs as programmers. "We were true partners," Gates says. "We'd talk for hours every day." After Gates went off to Harvard, Allen drove his rattletrap Chrysler cross-country to continue their collaboration. He eventually persuaded Gates to become that university's most famous modern dropout in order to start a software company, which they initially dubbed Micro-Soft (after considering the name Allen & Gates Inc.), to write versions of BASIC for the first personal computers. It was an intense relationship: Gates the workaholic code writer and competitor, Allen the dreamy visionary.
Over the years they would have ferocious fights, and Allen would, after a Hodgkin's disease scare, quit the company and become estranged. But Gates worked hard to repair the relationship and eventually lured Allen, who is now one of the country's biggest high-tech venture-capital investors (and owner of the Portland Trail Blazers), back onto the Microsoft board. "We like to talk about how the fantasies we had as kids actually came true," Gates says. Now, facing their old classroom building at Lakeside is the modern brick Allen/Gates Science Center. (Gates lost the coin toss.)
Steve Ballmer, big and balding, is bouncing around a Microsoft conference room with the spirit of the Harvard football-team manager he once was. "Bill lived down the hall from me at Harvard sophomore year," he says. "He'd play poker until 6 in the morning, then I'd run into him at breakfast and discuss applied mathematics." They took graduate-level math and economics courses together, but Gates had an odd approach toward his classes: he would skip the lectures of those he was taking and audit the lectures of those he wasn't, then spend the period before each exam cramming. "He's the smartest guy I've ever met," says Ballmer, 40, continuing the unbroken sequence of people who make that point early in an interview.
Ballmer nurtured the social side of Gates, getting him to join one of the college's eating clubs (at his initiation Gates gave a drunken disquisition on an artificial-intelligence machine), playing the video game Pong at hamburger joints and later wandering with him to places like the old Studio 54 during visits to New York City. "He was eccentric but charismatic," says Ballmer.
When Microsoft began to grow in 1980, Gates needed a smart nontechie to help run things, and he lured Ballmer, who had worked for Procter & Gamble, to Seattle as an equity partner. Though he can be coldly impersonal in making business decisions, Gates has an emotional loyalty to a few old friends. "I always knew I would have close business associates like Ballmer and several of the other top people at Microsoft, and that we would stick together and grow together no matter what happened," he says. "I didn't know that because of some analysis. I just decided early on that was part of who I was."