Fr Kevin Hegarty
In my last column I wrote about a 19th century English philanthropist, James Hack Tuke, who made a huge contribution to the alleviation of poverty in rural Ireland.
By coincidence a contemporary philanthropist has recently been in the news. On September 14, Chuck Feeney closed his company, ‘Atlantic Philanthropies’, it having achieved its aim of dispersing his $8 billion fortune.
Feeney was born in 1931 in New Jersey to Irish-American working class parents. He traces his Irish ancestry to County Fermanagh. In retrospect it is clear that his life has been shaped by his early experiences.
As a teenager and young adult he displayed a flair for making money. He caddied at the local golf course, cleared driveways of snow in winter and sold home-made sandwiches to fellow students at Cornell University, where he studied hotel administration. His mother was a nurse who instilled in him a sense of moral responsibility for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed.
After serving in the US army in the ‘Korean War’ Robert Feeney and a classmate Warren Miller sold alcohol, tobacco, radios and cars to American servicemen stationed on the Mediterranean and Asia. In 1960, they founded the Duty Free Shoppers Group, which ran operations in Asia, Europe and Australia. It established a very lucrative operation in Hawaii where they had to employ an armoured car to bring their daily takings to the bank.
The Duty Free Shoppers Group became the world’s largest travel retailer, making profits of $300 million a year. By the 1980s Feeney was a billionaire who owned mansions in several countries.
His wealthy lifestyle, however, left him uneasy. He began to question the direction of his life. His mother’s commitment to the vulnerable haunted him. Reading the reflections of the 19th-century philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie inspired and challenged him. In ‘The Gospel of Wealth’, Carnegie wrote that ‘the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor’ and ‘to die rich is to die disgraced’.
In 1983, Feeney made the momentous decision to give away his fortune. Having made modest provision for his family, he decided to use his wealth for charitable and educational purposes through the agency of his new company, Atlantic Philanthropies. He adopted a frugal lifestyle. Asked why he wore a $10 Casio watch he replied, “Why do I need a Rolex when it tells the same time?”
He gave anonymously for several years until a lawsuit with his former partner, businessman Robert Warren Miller, in the 1990s compelled him to reveal his identity.
In 2011 he outlined the homespun philosophy that has shaped the last three decades of his life.
“I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living – to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition. More importantly, today’s needs are so great and varied that intelligent philanthropic support and positive interventions can have greater value and impact today than if they are delayed when the needs are greater.”
Atlantic Philanthropies has supported projects in the US, Ireland, Vietnam and Australia. Among the beneficiaries are Carnell University, University of Limerick and Dublin City University. He gave substantial backing to peace process initiatives in Northern Ireland. Human rights organisations in the US have also benefitted. He gave $270 million to modernise Vietnam’s healthcare system. One of the company’s final donations was to the Global Brain Health Institute at the University of California, to find a cure for dementia.
Feeney has found fulfilment in giving his wealth away. He told his biographer, Conor O’Clery that he found happiness seeing a young girl smiling for the first time after an operation for a cleft palate, or watching a surgeon restore someone’s sight or discussing plans with scientists for a new hospital, or just chatting with kids in a library he had built, though they would not know that, as he never allowed his name on a building.