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Chuck Feeney's generosity 'as extensive as it is imaginative'

Chuck Feeney, Frank H.T. Rhodes and Ed Walsh in Ireland in 1987

From left, Chuck Feeney '56, then-Cornell President Frank H.T. Rhodes and Ed Walsh, founding president of the University of Limerick in Ireland, in 1987. Feeney and Rhodes were on a trip visiting universities in Ireland. Image: Provided.

I first met Chuck Feeney almost 35 years ago and have enjoyed the privilege of his friendship ever since. I served as a board member of his foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, for 13 years and as chairman for eight years. I have traveled with him all over the world to visit the foundation's philanthropic activities. I talk to him almost every week.

How do you begin to describe this remarkable individual?

Chuck is modest to a fault and frugal (insisting on flying coach until very recently and housing his foundation board in the Hamilton Princess Hotel in Bermuda, while he stayed in a more modest hotel nearby). He is self-effacing, devoted to his family and friends, shy and boldly imaginative.

Frank H.T. Rhodes

Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes. Image: Provided. See larger image

From the very beginning Chuck has been an enterprising and entrepreneurial individual. Graduating in 1956, Chuck's entrepreneurial business activities met with spectacular success, and he amassed a fortune, which – after providing for his family and retaining only a modest living allowance for himself – he gave away to form The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Chuck's generosity to Cornell has been as extensive as it is imaginative. It extends from the Cornell Club in New York City to the Statler, where his financing of the "new" hotel transformed the life and finances of the School of Hotel Administration, to the school's Beck Center, named in honor of his old friend and mentor, Dean Bob Beck '42. He invented and initially financed the Cornell Tradition Program, which provides scholarships for needy students in exchange for campus service and work, and which has now supported almost 5,000 students.

Much of Chuck Feeney's giving, both in this country and abroad, has supported two kinds of institutions: universities and their affiliated medical schools and hospitals. From Australia to Vietnam, to South Africa, to Ireland, to the U.S., these twin commitments have underlain his philanthropy, and especially the "Founder's Grants" of the Atlantic Foundation. This arises, I think, from his conviction that – in his own words – there is "no shortage of people who need help. It's a market that will always exist."

Health care is the most basic need of "people who need help" and universities and their hospitals are the best means, not only of providing it, but also of creating it, extending it, and training those who provide it.

The imprint of Chuck Feeney's generosity is everywhere. Yet he resists having a single building or program named in his honor.

In 2012 all seven of the universities of Ireland joined together to award Chuck Feeney an honorary LL.D. degree in recognition of his generosity, which has transformed Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Cornell University does not award honorary degrees, but perhaps it might be appropriate to recognize and honor Chuck Feeney as our greatest benefactor since Ezra Cornell and to acknowledge all he continues to do to create the new Cornell and to keep this great university accessible to "any person ... in any study."

Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes led the university from 1977-95 and is professor emeritus of geological sciences at Cornell.

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