Chuck (Charles Francis) Feeney was born into an Irish family in 1931 in the working-class neighborhood of Elmora, in Elizabeth City, New Jersey. 

Born into a poor family, he soon had to earn a living for himself. Sometimes he was seen selling umbrellas on the beach, sometimes selling sandwiches at Cornell University, where he later studied and graduated with a degree in Hotel Administration.

With strong business instincts, he succeeded in predicting the burgeoning purchasing power of military personnel and Japanese, German, and other European middle classes after the war was over. His extensive traveling in the military helped him come up with the idea of Duty Free shopping, which became a wildly popular concept. 

Feeney’s moral conscience

Feeney’s concern for the plight of the poor was instilled in him by his parents from a young age. Despite their own poverty, they passed on to him the tradition of giving to charity anonymously.

(The Atlantic Philanthropies/ Facebook)

His closeness with the poor children and the blue collar workers of Elmora played a role in strengthening his compassion and made him disapprove of those who squandered their wealth while others starved.

His separation from his first wife Danielle was probably due to their different concepts about life. While traveling on the same plane with the executive officers of Atlantic Philanthropies, the charitable organization he had founded, or with his children, who were seated in business class, he remained behind in economy class. 

Though he never indulged in luxury, he did not require his children to adhere to his austere lifestyle.

Family over riches

The death of one of his nephews, who Feeney was very close to and had much in common with, devastated the wealthy businessman. He became aware that, despite all his riches and his connections, he could not save his own nephew. Money cannot buy people’s lives. After this, Feeney decided to invest heavily in the healthcare sector.

Chuck Feeney and Helga Feeney (Cornell University School of Hotel Administration/ Facebook)

Feeney and his second wife Helga were rather nomadic and were happy to dwell anywhere. Feeney was always seen with a suitcase with book bags attached; he always traveled in the company of books. People teased him that, with nine honorary doctorates awarded to him, one should really call him “Mr. Dr., Dr., Dr., Dr., Dr., Dr., Dr., Dr., Dr. Feeney!”

When Forbes ranked him as a billionaire in 1988, journalist Buddy de Lazaro wrote in a column of the Elizabeth Daily Journal that becoming a billionaire wasn’t so bad for the poor kid who started out selling umbrellas and sandwiches. The next day, Feeney tried to meet de Lazaro to say that the article had made him happier than any profile in Business Week.

“All of us, children of Elmora, let’s stick together,” de Lazaro wrote. “There is an Eastern saying,” he continued, “that wealth does not change people, it only reveals their true personality. I guess, under the mask of a billionaire is a kid from Elmora wearing a baseball cap.”

With great wealth comes great responsibility

“Wealth brings responsibility,” Feeney often said. “People must define themselves, or feel a responsibility to use some of their assets to improve the lives of their fellow humans, or else create intractable problems for future generations.” Feeney believed, as did philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, that property spoils people.

Bill Gates told Feeney: “You have set the best example of all. You were ten thousand miles ahead of us. Long before the Giving Pledge was born (started from the initiative of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett), Chuck Feeney was an outstanding model for his philanthropic colleagues,” Gates said.

As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “My life is a message.” The same is true about Chuck Feeney’s life. He admired and lived up to Carnegie’s advice, leaving nothing but an example of A humble life, devoid of showing off, away from ostentation and waste.” 

His only goals were to meet the legitimate needs of his family members. Only after doing that would he consider all the surplus income that came to him simply as funds that he had been chosen to administer to produce the most profitable results for the community.  

Chuck Feeney with Atlantic Fellows community (Chuck Feeney/ Facebook)

But Feeney was not quite the same as Carnegie. Carnegie’s projects such as dozens of libraries, schools, and universities still bear his name, while Feeney’s projects are not named after the donor. He always wanted to remain anonymous. 

This family tradition of giving secretly, without showing off one’s wealth or expecting praise for donations, has remained with him to this day.

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