CORVALLIS - Mercedes Bates, an Oregon State University graduate credited with helping to make "Betty Crocker" a household name, died Saturday in Minneapolis, Minn. She was 81.

A 1936 graduate of OSU, Bates was a vice president of the General Mills food company in charge of the Betty Crocker Division. Her leadership and promotion of Betty Crocker - and the values attached to that name - are her strongest legacy, university leaders say.

"Mercedes Bates made sure that the food industry recognized the strength and value of families," said Kinsey B. Green, dean of the College of Home Economics and Education at OSU. "Betty Crocker became synonymous with those values."

Bates' commitment to families continued after her retirement in 1983. She made a major donation to the College of Home Economics and Education toward the construction of a family study center. The Mercedes A. Bates Family Study Center opened in 1992 as the first center in the U.S. dedicated to studying families during their entire lifespan.

Bates was a pioneer in other ways. She became the first female corporate officer of General Mills, and helped to establish an environment at the company that was open to all employees. General Mills has been included in the list of Best Companies for Women to Work in America, the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America, and Best Companies for Minorities.

After graduating from Oregon State with a degree in food and nutrition, Bates began work at the Southern California Gas Company and became supervisor of home service. She moved to the Globe Mills foods company, then opened her own business in Hollywood as an advertising food consultant. She joined the staff of McCall's magazine as food editor, then moved to General Mills in 1964 as director of the Betty Crocker Kitchens. She became vice president two years later.

OSU has honored Bates with its Distinguished Service Award and Distinguished Alumni Award. She has been president of the American Home Economics Association and its foundation.

"Mercedes was a pioneer who had a real strength of character," said Paul Allison, development director for OSU's College of Home Economics and Education, who had known Bates for more than 15 years. "She was an advocate for using home economists in business to apply scientific research to meet family needs. She had very high standards and presentation of food, as well as nutrition, was important.

"She was," he added, "years ahead of her time."

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Kinsey Green, 541-737-3551