In a world where so many rich people sing out “me me me me me me me,” more often than opera singers, one of the world’s richest men is donating all his money to help others. And while the rich who do donate often do it to draw attention to themselves, he’s doing it anonymously.
This man is Chuck Feeney, a billionaire eight times over. Or is he? It seems from the time he was building his fortune; he began secretly donating it to help others.
Whether it was building a life saving hospital, Da Nang General in Vietnam, providing $600 million in facilities and scholarships to Cornell, a $60 million biomedical center at Stanford, a $125 million cardiovascular center at UC San Francisco or any of thousands of other donations, none have his name on them and rarely did the recipients know who provided the money.
Today, his foundation Atlantic Philanthropies has nearly all of his money, and it is donating it for causes such as helping poor children, healthcare, and human rights largely in the U.S., Australia, England, Ireland, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam. In Australia and Vietnam, he is the biggest private donor by far. And Chuck has directed Atlantic to distribute all of the money by 2016.
How did he get so rich? You may not recognize Chuck’s name but you probably know the firm he co-founded with a college friend, Bob Miller: Duty Free Shoppers Group. The shops are located in major airports across the world and onboard ships, and even in costly hotels.
They sell designer merchandise from Baccarat, Cartier, Givenchy, Gucci, Hermes, Lanvin, Mont Blanc and other expensive top end names. They’re also the biggest seller of liquor and cigarettes. Chuck and Bob and their other partners sold the firm for billions of dollars in cash in 1997.
Chuck had come a very long way. Born during The Great Depression in 1931 to a blue collar New Jersey family, at 17 he joined the U.S. Air Force for four years, mostly during the Korean War. As a result, under the G. I. Bill he was able to attend Cornell University tuition free.
But Chuck was always short of funds and he began selling sandwiches. He made enough money that people used to joke about him not needing a job after college when he graduated in 1956.
At Cornell, Chuck met Bob Miller and later from Europe the two partners started making money selling duty-free liquor, radios, tape recorders and other goods to U.S. sailors.
They opened their first duty-free shops in 1960 in Honolulu and Hong Kong, struggled for years and took on partners to help them. But by 1966 Japan was booming and lifted travel restrictions on its citizens, who began buying a wide array of western goods.
Chuck learned Japanese and soon offered incentives to tour guides to bring tourists through their duty free stores and their financial empire had begun. In the 1960’s and 70’s as air travel became cheap, people from all over the U.S. and Europe shopped in the stores they were quickly opening and the partners became very wealthy.
Chuck and his first wife Danielle (they were married for 31 years), and their five children had the best money could buy. Among their possessions, they owned grand homes in London, Paris, the French Riviera, Hawaii, Connecticut and New York, but this did not make Chuck happy.
He divorced Danielle and radically changed his life. Today, his children are adults and doing well. He and his second wife Helga live in a small one bedroom apartment they rent in San Francisco. He doesn’t own a home or a car.
Chuck dresses casually, and usually rides on busses or subways or he walks. He wears a cheap watch, “If I can get a watch for $15, that keeps perfect time, what am I doing messing around with a Rolex?”* When he travels, until recently he always flew coach. Now at 77 years of age, he often uses frequent flyer miles to upgrade to business class.
And Chuck and Helga travel often, to destinations all over the world, staying in tiny apartments or other simple accommodations. As for expensive restaurants, they don’t fit Chuck. He enjoys fine food and wine, modestly priced. And he has a favorite selection. “I happen to enjoy grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Chuck’s net worth is now under a million dollars and slowly declining. But if you look at his life, he was not comfortable being rich. “I had one idea that never changed in my mind – that you should use your wealth to help people. I try to live a normal life, the way I grew up,” he said.*
He told the Times about one of his favorite charities, Operation Smile which pays for surgeons to go to poor countries and operate on children with cleft palates. One day in a waiting room, he saw a little girl so embarrassed by her condition she covered her mouth with her hands.
“I kept an eye on her,” said Chuck. “After she had the operation and she was smiling [like]; ‘It’s not the ugly me you knew before. It’s the new me.’” Her response touched his heart.
Chuck has not fully explained why he is anonymously donating his vast fortune to uplift humanity but I believe he never felt entitled to vast riches, nor did it make his life more enjoyable. He does not attend church, but he finds great joy in making a wonderful difference in the lives of others. It gives his life meaning that money never could.
Many people ignore the world’s problems but not Chuck. He sees people in need and treats them as his extended family. To see an eye doctor restore a poor blind man’s sight or to observe inner city children educate themselves using computers he’s provided has far greater value to him than a villa, a yacht, a limousine or other expensive toys.
“Countless people across the globe,” said author Conor O’Clery. “In the United States, Europe, the Asia Pacific region, Australia, and Africa – owe Chuck Feeney their sight, their health, or their lives for the advances he has made possible in cancer and other medical research and through funding of heart clinics and eye hospitals.
“Dozens of health, children’s, aging, and human rights organizations survive on programs aided by Feeney’s wealth. Throughout the world, hundreds of thousands of students spend part of every day in one of the academic buildings, sports halls, or dormitories that his philanthropy has funded. Many of them are there because Feeney provided their scholarships.”*
Not bad for a blue collar boy from New Jersey.