ASHLAND — Leaders from near and far and across the political aisle were among hundreds who paid their respects to State Senator Dr. Alan Bates at a memorial service Saturday.

Nearly 400 people filled the Rogue River Room at Southern Oregon University, among them  Republican Rep. Greg Walden and former Gov. John Kitzhaber, who spoke at the service.

Kitzhaber said he considered Bates one of his "political mentors," and said that without Bates' instrumental role in health care reform, Oregon would still be doing Medicaid the same way it did 30 years ago.

Other speakers touched on Bates' political, professional and family lives, emphasizing his devotion to his patients and the public.

In an anecdote, Kitzhaber recalled Bates' role in the beginnings of health care reform, when Bates deadpanned an early computerized health care cost-benefit analysis released in May 1990.

"At the very top, the most important priority for spending health care dollars in Oregon was the treatment of thumb-sucking," Kitzhaber said, giving the crowd a moment of levity.

Bates held an impromptu press conference about the report, where he called it a "great success." Bates said to "anyone who would listen" that thumb-sucking was easy to treat, effective and offered a lifetime health benefit, Kitzhaber said. 

"After a few months of turbulence, they recognized a cost-benefit formula alone doesn't really reflect how Oregonians want to allocate their health care resources," Kitzhaber said. Bates, he added, "helped us make progress towards a future where every single person in this state will have timely, affordable access to quality health care."

Community activist Cathy Shaw said strategies Bates tested in his campaigns would go on to bring success for other campaigns in Jackson County, such as the Medford school bond and the Jackson County Library District.

Shaw highlighted reasons why Bates was so effective.

"As you might expect, Alan was organized — you have to be organized when you have that many items in the fire," Shaw said.

If a bill's passage meant it needed to be carried by Republicans, Bates would find the Republican senator to carry it, even if it meant Bates wouldn't get credit. 

Friend and Oregon Democrat Rep. Peter Buckley was visibly upset through most of his speech.

"I'm not going to be able to get through this without tears," Buckley said. "I don't think that's required, I don't think that's possible."

Buckley joked about the "problem" with Bates.

"The 'problem' with Alan Bates is he could see, and the 'problem' with Alan Bates is that he could not turn away," Buckley said.

Buckley said Bates could see his own fears, strengths, hopes and loves, and Bates could see the strengths and loves and hopes and pains of every person he encountered. 

"He had to try to help. He had to," Buckley said.

While admitting Bates' faults, Buckley honored his friend.

"Nobody bats a thousand, but Bates has Hall of Fame numbers," Buckley said.

Cardiologist Brian Gross said witnessing Bates' bedside manner with a scared patient in early 1982 sealed his decision to move to Medford without even seeing the town.

He marveled at Shaw, Kitzhaber and Buckley's stirring tributes to Bates.

"I heal broken hearts, but they've done a marvelous job," Gross said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.