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An Irishman’s Diary

Resource type: News

The Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Conor O’Clery.  THE OTHER DAY I saw a man wearing a tie. I had never seen this man wearing a tie before, although he is 79 years old. I have travelled the world with him, eaten out in his company in cities as far apart as New York, Dublin and Brisbane, and he always wore a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned at the neck. Everyone was so surprised to see him wearing the silk neckpiece that he apologised for it.

It was a Ferragamo tie, he confessed, given to him as a present. “It’s more expensive than my suit,” he quipped. The 850 people who heard his explanation laughed uproariously but it might very well have been true. The man was Chuck Feeney, the famously frugal philanthropist from New Jersey. He was dressed up to receive the award of Icon of Industry from the Cornell Hotel School at a dinner in New York’s Natural History Museum on June 8th.

The other surprise was that Feeney had agreed to accept the award at all. Once listed by Forbes as the 23rd richest American, the New Jersey native has spent most of his life avoiding the spotlight. He has never allowed his name to be put on the scores of university and medical buildings he has funded in the United States, Ireland, Vietnam, Australia, and South Africa.

He has refused countless offers of honorary degrees and he rarely attends formal receptions. But he accepted this honour from his alma mater, Cornell Hotel School in New York State, mainly because it is a recognition of his business life, of which he is quite proud, rather than of his giving, for which he believes “you should not blow your trumpet”. The award recognised “the accomplishments of an outstanding leader in the hospitality industry”, and was presented by Bill Marriott of the Marriott hotel chain, last year’s recipient.

Cornell gave Feeney, who comes from a modest Irish-American background, an Ivy League education, a launch pad to the world, a network of loyal friends, and self-confidence. At the ceremony were many of his colleagues from his career as one of the world’s top hoteliers and co-founder of DFS, the biggest duty-free chain in the world, and many members of his extended family of Feeney-Fitzpatricks from New Jersey.

There were some notable absentees, such as Bonnie Suchet, his office manager in London for 20 years, whose dementia was movingly chronicled by her husband John Suchet in My Bonnie , published last month, and Bob Miller, his DFS partner with whom he parted company on less-than-friendly terms over the sale of DFS in 1997 and who is today the richest westerner living in Hong Kong. But long-time business associates and friends came from all over the world to show their respect, like Jeff Mahlstedt from Florida, who worked with him in the early free-wheeling days of duty free in Asia, Phil Fong from Hawaii who crunched the numbers when bidding for new duty-free concessions, and artist Desmond Kinney from Belfast whom he commissioned to create a wonderful mosaic for the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at Limerick University. Feeney was deeply moved by the fact that so many people of his generation were prepared to spend hours on long-distance flights to come to New York to celebrate his amazing life. Often referred to as a billionaire, Feeney isn’t even a millionaire today.

He does not own a house or car, flies economy class, sports a plastic watch and lives with his wife Helga in small apartments rented by his foundation in different cities. In 1984 he turned over his whole fortune to his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies. Under his leadership it made grants in secrecy for two decades. It’s all out in the open now. When he reached his 70s he was persuaded that he could not advance the cause he believes in – giving while living – unless other rich people could see him as an example to be followed.

Hence his decision to co-operate with me in a biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t , published in 2007. With its publication the weight of anonymity was lifted from his shoulders. He is now not just a model for the hospitality industry but an icon in the world of philanthropy, listened to and consulted by other major givers like Bill Gates. For the record, Feeney has donated $5 billion to good causes in the US and around the world. Over $1 billion of that has gone to Ireland, much of it for research and new buildings at Irish universities and to sustain the peace process.

There is $3 billion remaining in the New York-based charity. In keeping with Feeney’s philosophy of giving while living, the foundation is determined to spend all of that in his lifetime. It will issue its final grant in 2016. After that there won’t be enough money left in the kitty to buy a silk tie, even if he wanted one. Which he doesn’t.

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