Chuck Feeney recounts his life, from CU's 'sandwich man' to its 'most generous and modest' donor

The man Cornell President David Skorton described as "the world's most generous and modest donor," billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney, Hotel '56, spoke about his remarkable life June 10 in Bailey Hall as the 2011 Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Lecturer during Reunion Weekend.

Feeney made his fortune after founding Duty Free Shoppers in 1965. By the late-1970s he was reaping millions, and in 1982 he and his associates established the Atlantic Foundation (now Atlantic Philanthropies) as a way to give some of it away. In 1984 Feeney signed away between $500 million and $800 million to the foundation -- reducing his own wealth to less than $5 million. By the end of 2010, the foundation had made grants totaling more than $5.5 billion.

With a philosophy of "giving while living," Feeney insisted on "complete anonymity," until recently, said Skorton. His philanthropic efforts became well known when his authorized biography, "The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune," by journalist Conor O'Clery, was published in 2007.

Feeney said he got the idea for his duty-free shops in Europe, where he was at an airport, "and I saw these guys selling everything from soup to nuts, and I said, well, shoot, I can do that."

The company eventually had 4,000 employees. It was important that "the people who worked for us were treated fairly," he said, adding that one of the greatest challenges that he faced "was making payroll."

In the late 1970s to early 1980s, Feeney and his family decided "that once we had made enough money we would quit, and we decided to concentrate on spending the money that we were making," he said.

Since then, the Atlantic Philanthropies has helped better the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people through program areas focused on aging, children and youth, reconciliation and human rights, and population health, in the United States, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Vietnam, Australia and Bermuda.

"We realized it was a big world, and we were trying to support schools in a number of countries, and we went on from there," he said.

In 1997 The New York Times reported that Feeney had given away more than $600 million to educational institutions, including very generous support for Cornell.

Atlantic Philanthropies' donations have allowed Cornell to launch the Cornell Tradition and the Presidential Research Scholars programs (now named for President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings), the Life Sciences Initiative, the Tri-Institutional Research Program, the Hotel School expansion, and the transformation of North and West campuses.

Before attending Cornell, Feeney, after growing up in a working class Irish neighborhood in Elizabeth, N.J., spent four years in the military. Through the G.I. Bill, he received $800 for his first year at Cornell, but needed $1,200 to cover all his expenses, he said. One night on campus, "I saw this guy selling sandwiches to the fraternity members, and I said to myself, I can do that." From then on, he made more than he needed by selling sandwiches "every single night" for the next four years and was known around campus as "the sandwich man," he said.

On advice to colleagues who may want to give back, Feeney said, "It's evident now that philanthropy has reached a point where people are saying, if we are looking for a way to get out of this [financial crisis], we are going to have to get out of it together. ... So don't sell us short, let's look for opportunities to help."

The Olin Lecture was established in 1986 by the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Foundation to annually bring an internationally prominent speaker to campus to address a topic relevant to higher education and the current world situation.

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