Rockefeller, remembered

Memories of businessman and University trustee David Rockefeller, PhD’40, focus on his philanthropy. 

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His grandfather was famous for his wealth and for giving it away—to fund biomedical research, to support social services, and in 1889 donating $600,000 to help found the University of Chicago.

“Giving should be entered into in just the same way as investing,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. once said. “Giving is investing.”

John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his son John D. Rockefeller III in 1941 during the 50th anniversary celebration of the University of Chicago’s founding. (University of Chicago Magazine archive)

His last surviving grandson, David Rockefeller, PhD’40, continued the tradition, finding success as a banker while contributing his, and his family’s, vast resources to arts and education organizations. “We had been greatly blessed as a family,” he wrote in his 2002 book Memoirs (Random House), “and it was our obligation to give something back.”

Rockefeller died March 20 in Pocantico Hills, New York. He was 101.

David Rockefeller, PhD’40, and University president Hanna Holborn Gray. (University of Chicago Magazine archive)

Born on June 12, 1915, in New York City, Rockefeller served in the US Army during World War II before joining Chase National Bank as an assistant manager in 1946. He became chair and CEO of Chase Manhattan in 1969, traveling frequently to expand Chase’s international presence. In the 1970s he used his growing clout to help bring local businesses and government together to alleviate New York City’s financial troubles.

Rockefeller retired in 1981 and turned his focus to philanthropy, spurring the development of low-income housing and supporting museums, public schools, and universities. He was first elected a trustee of the University of Chicago in 1947 and remained committed to the University for the rest of his life; he was a trustee emeritus at the time of his death.

David Rockefeller’s International House application. (University of Chicago Magazine archive)

In 1998 President Bill Clinton recognized Rockefeller’s contributions to society with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rockefeller’s passing inspired tributes from government leaders, celebrities, and UChicagoans, many of which focused on his commitment to leave the world a better place. Here are excerpts from some remembrances.

Bill Gates, Microsoft Cofounder

David Rockefeller led a remarkable life. I enjoyed our conversations about giving back and learned a lot from him.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist

David Rockefeller’s (1915–2017) $900M in lifetime philanthropy is equivalent to donating $24,000 for every day of his life.

Robert J. Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago

David Rockefeller led a truly remarkable life, characterized by his keen intellect, an understanding of global issues, and a deep appreciation of the responsibility that his family’s legacy had given him. He was a generous supporter of the University and offered the benefit of his experience and good judgment. He will be remembered here for his prominent role in the University’s history.

Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, Former President and Former Secretary of State

David Rockefeller was a consummate businessman, a great humanitarian, and a serious scholar. He was a kind, good man to all who met him. Hillary and I are grateful for his friendship and his remarkable life.

Throughout his life he used his fame and fortune to do good here and abroad. His many efforts included the establishment of the Council of the Americas five decades ago, which was instrumental in my administration’s efforts to alleviate the financial crisis in Latin America and boost trade in the Americas and the Caribbean. His tremendous support of arts and humanities in America gave millions of people in communities across the country the opportunity to experience our great heritage of painting, dance, music, and so much more.

George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush, Former President and Former First Lady

Barbara and I were deeply saddened to hear that our wonderful friend, David Rockefeller, has passed from this good earth. So many knew him as one of the most generous philanthropists—and brightest Point of Light—whose caring and commitment to the widest range of worthy causes touched and lifted innumerable lives. David was also very active in national in international affairs. And his connections and keen aptitude for issues made him a valuable advisor to presidents of both parties—yours truly certainly included.

Michael Bloomberg, Former New York City Mayor

No individual has contributed more to the commercial and civic life of New York City over a longer period of time than David Rockefeller.

Martha Stewart, Entrepreneur and TV Personality

When I bought my home in Seal Harbor, the first person to formally welcome me was David Rockefeller. He drove himself to my Edsel Ford house, a house with which he was very familiar, and personally introduced me to a bit of the history of the neighborhood. For the next nineteen years, David Rockefeller was a “regular” friend, sharing his skills of boat captain, on Sea Smoke, driving us generously through the park in his horse drawn carriage, playing croquet on his seaside lawn, and all the while educating us about a life well lived, his life, setting for me and my family a standard of excellence not only in daily existence—never give up—but in philanthropy and conservation efforts. I will always consider him my first and best Maine friend.

Charlie Rose, Journalist

Mike Bloomberg once said to me that if his father knew he was a friend of David Rockefeller’s, nothing would have made him more proud. I could say the same thing. … He was a wonderful man, a wonderful friend, and he lived an extraordinary life.

John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, Dean of the College

David Rockefeller served with great distinction as an active trustee of the University, as a generous philanthropist in support of the University’s academic programs and as a wise adviser to several of our presidents.

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