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Dare to Be 100: Die Broke

Resource type: News

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By Walter M. Bortz II, M.D., Clinical Professor of Medicine at Stanford University

Who was it who said,”You can’t take it with you?”

Sounds right to me. I have seen Mao’s tomb in Beijing and the acres of terra cotta warriors nearby. Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”

Good luck, Woody. Forget it. Your molecules are as perishable as a cloud of smoke.

But outliving your resources is not a good idea either. A series of retirement advisors inquire,”How long do you expect to live?” It throws them into a tizzy when I answer “until 100.”

“But our tables don’t go that far out.” So that is a problem.

I have been fortunate enough to have sufficient acorns in my nest to see me through the next 16 winters till I’m 100. But what if I outlive my savings? Possible but unlikely. If it happens I will renegotiate.

I have written elsewhere that my long range master plan involves becoming a beachcomber as my terminus nears. And beachcombing is cheap. I can’t stand the prospect of a friendly IRS agent marauding through my safe deposit box and absorbing its contents when I crash. He crows, “Thanks Dr. Bortz, for being such a productive citizen. Thank you,” as he empties its stuff into his sac. But my safe-deposit box will be empty before his visit, as I will have appropriately dispersed its meager contents in advance to the persons and institutions that I hold dear. I intend therefore to die broke.

I share this intent with an amazing friend, Chuck Feeney. Chuck is known, if he is known at all, as “the anonymous billionaire donor.” He has chosen to remain invisible, to hide the incredible generosity that he has displayed for several decades. Some have described him as the greatest American philantropist ever, including the prior title holder, Andrew Carnegie.

Chuck made his billions in the tax-free shops in the airports. When the 747s belched out their hordes in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Honolulu, Chuck was behind the counter selling cigarettes, Scotch whiskey, Rolex watches, etc., to the eager tourists seeking a remembrance. At its height he sold it to Louis Vuiton for huge bucks and retired to his errand of making the world better.

Being a Feeney his first priority was Ireland, and its messes. With Bill Clinton and George Mitchell he helped mollify the IRA. His billions helped change Ireland from a backwater to a bellwether of the European economy.

At heart Chuck is a contrarian and as such harbors much sadness over how our nation has handled much of its foreign affairs. Accordingly, he has targeted major funding to Vietnam and Cuba. I have been privileged to advise him on a number of these missions.

Chuck’s alma mater, Cornell, has benefitted hugely, but so too has UCSF (now their largest supporter) and my home base of Stanford also gained by his interest.

Several years ago, goaded by a New York Times report Chuck decided to “come out,” and reveal the source of these usually anonymous gifts. In so doing he hoped to enlist Bill and Melinda, Warren, and the rest of the billionaire club to his avowed strategy of “giving while living.” They acknowledge his parenthood role in this movement which has now grown in membership and scope of involvement.

But I am a little peeved with Chuck because he has stolen one of the lines that I use in my Dare to Be 100 talks. I usually end my spiel by claiming, “I want my last check to bounce.” He thoroughly buys into this philosophy and is immensely enriching our needy world in the process.

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Chuck Feeney, Giving While Living