Charles Feeney has more than lived up to his goal of “giving while living,” having anonymously donated away nearly his entire personal fortune of $4 billion.
Now the businessman has gone public, partly in the hope of inspiring other wealthy Americans to open up their checkbooks.
“I believe that people of substantial wealth potentially create problems for future generations unless they themselves accept responsibility to use their wealth during their lifetime to help worthwhile causes,” Feeney said in a statement Thursday.
Feeney, 65, made his fortune with a string of duty-free shops in international airports. He recently sold his share in Duty Free Shoppers Limited to the company that makes Moet & Chandon champagne.
He said he had transferred all but about $5 million of his assets to his two charitable foundations, the Atlantic Foundation and the Atlantic Trust.
A spokesman for the foundations said Feeney was refusing all interviews Thursday. A friend and several acquaintances said the anonymity he cherished over 15 years as a philanthropist reflects his private, unassuming personality.
“He is very straightforward - unassuming is a good word,” said Michael Sovern, a foundation board member and former president of Columbia University.
“A strong character, a highly intelligent man, but he does not seek to show off or otherwise throw his weight around,” Sovern said.
A lawsuit filed by former business partner Robert Miller, a college classmate with whom he founded the duty-free empire, threatened to unmask his philanthropic work, so Feeney decided to go public first.
Feeney, who grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., the son of an insurance underwriter, rarely rides in a limousine and prefers to fly economy class. He often eats lunch alone at an untrendy Irish eatery in midtown Manhattan.
“I think his watch cost about $15,” said Harvey P. Dale, a professor of tax law at New York University who has helped administer Feeney’s Atlantic Foundation since 1982, told The New York Times.
Dale also said Feeney doesn’t own a house or car. He and his wife have five grown children.
In 1960, he and Miller set up their first duty-free shop in Hong Kong. The now company has annual sales of $3 billion.
Feeney’s largess has gone to universities and educational organizations, job training programs, low-income housing initiatives and hospitals.
He is the single largest American donor to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. He told the Times that his gifts to Sinn Fein - totaling at least $280,000 - were carefully monitored to ensure that they supported only nonviolent activities of the group.
Feeney doesn’t disdain wealth, foundation workers say. He enjoys life - particularly sports and travel. But they say he has seen how great wealth can crush people and isolate them.