Charles F. "Chuck" Feeney '56, the man who quietly amassed an enormous fortune as a duty-free trader and then secretly gave away more than $5 billion through his charitable foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, stood for the cheers of his fellow Cornellians June 8 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
More than 825 alumni and industry leaders packed the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life to pay tribute to the man whose example of world-changing philanthropy helped inspire Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in their good works. The reluctant honoree, who has never before agreed to accept public acclaim, was there to receive the Icon of the Industry Award from his alma mater, Cornell's School of Hotel Administration.
Hotelier Sol Kerzner, founder, CEO and chairman of Kerzner International Holdings Ltd., was also honored at the event, with the Hospitality Innovator Award from the Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship. In the 1960s Kerzner created the first five-star hotel in his native South Africa, the Beverly Hills Hotel in Durban. From there his empire grew to include the Sun City chain of 30 luxury hotels and then extended internationally into resort casinos and other luxury resorts in Mauritius, the Bahamas, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, the Maldives and the United States. Among his other awards, Kerzner was named Hotelier of the World by Hotels Magazine in 2005.
"The stars are out tonight," said Leland Pillsbury '69, Cornell trustee and a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Visiting Professor, as he took the podium to begin the program. Among the many luminaries in attendance was Ambassador Anne Anderson, Ireland's permanent representative to the United Nations; Feeney's extended family, friends and associates came in force from Ireland and from as far away as Indonesia and Australia.
Other speakers were Cornell President David Skorton; President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III; Michael D. Johnson, dean and E.M. Statler Professor of the School of Hotel Administration; J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International and last year's Icon of the Industry honoree; and Jonathan Tisch, co-chairman of the board and member of the Office of the President of Loews Corp. and chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels. Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes, who chaired the board of the Atlantic Philanthropies from 2000 to 2008, gave a videotaped tribute to his longtime friend, noting that Feeney has given $600 million to Cornell -- "so far." Much of that money has been used to endow Cornell Tradition scholarships and fellowships and hundreds of professorships; among his other gifts to Cornell, Feeney established the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. Feeney has also given substantial gifts to Irish universities and was instrumental in achieving peace in Northern Ireland.
The self-effacing philanthropist, whom Rawlings described as "a paragon of humility and generosity," was presented with a $13 watch, which he accepted with glee, saying, "The award of this Casio is really appreciated, because you can always sell these things."
Jeanne Griffith is senior staff writer at the School of Hotel Administration.