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By Shlomo Maital
I doubt readers have ever heard of Charles Feeney. Today’s New York Times tells his amazing story. It deserves to be widely known and imitated.
Feeney will be 86 years old on April 23. Wikipedia recounts: He was born in New Jersey during the Great Depression and came from a modest background of blue collar Irish-American parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His ancestry traces to County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.
He served as a U.S. Air Force radio operator during the Korean War, and began his career selling duty-free liquor to US naval personnel at Mediterranean ports in the 1950s. He attended Cornell University on the GI bill, and in 1960, based on his navy experience, set up a company that sold duty-free items to travelers. It became a booming success. He used some of his money to invest cleverly in high-tech startups, like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba and Legent.
But Feeney’s story is not about another successful entrepreneur. In 1984 he founded Atlantic Philanthropies, a collection of foundations – without revealing he was the benefactor – and transferred all his billions to it, and promised to shut it down, after giving away his entire fortune, $8 billion. Five years ago, he still had $1.5 b. left. Would he succeed, before his passing? Yes. It is now officially all gone.
And Feeney? He lives modestly with his wife, in a rented New York apartment. He flies economy class. He eats in diners. He left himself $2 million.
I have a somewhat personal link to Feeney. As a Cornell alum, he gave a huge sum, $350 m., to fund the Cornell-Technion project that will create a new high-tech university on Roosevelt Island, in Manhattan.
His philanthropy has been effective. One of his grants proposed reforms to America’s healthcare system, which led to the Affordable Care Act. And Feeney has scrupulously avoided any limelight – his backing of the Atlantic Philanthropies was revealed against his wishes. His secretiveness led to the “James Bond” appellate.
The New York Times article uses the story of Feeney to provide a backhanded slap at Donald Trump, who typifies the diametric oppositse of everything Charles Feeney stands for and accomplished.