LONDON - He wears a $15 watch, flies economy class and does not own a house or car. For years. few guessed that Chuck Feeney was one of the world's biggest philanthropists, secretly giving away his billionaire fortune.
Born in New Jersey during the Depression to a blue-collar Irish-American family, Feeney co-founded Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), the world's largest duty-free retail chain. He liked making money but not having it, and gave it away for years in strict secrecy.
Journalist Conor O'Clery's new book "The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune" (Public Affairs $26.95), reveals that Feeney may be destined to go down in history as one of the greatest American philanthropists.
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Witty, self-deprecating, frugal and astute, Feeney was listed by Forbes Magazine in 1988 as the 23rd richest American alive and worth $1.3 billion, richer than Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump. He wasn't.
Four years earlier, Feeney had placed most of his money in charitable foundations.
Inspired by the great 19th century philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, Feeney helped fund schools, hospitals, universities, medical research and human rights from the United States and Ireland to South Africa and Vietnam.
'I set out to work hard, not to get rich'
"I had one idea that never changed in my mind — that you should use your wealth to help people. I try to live a normal life, the way I grew up," Feeney said. "I set out to work hard, not to get rich."
Feeney made money in his youth selling Christmas cards door-to-door, clearing snow from driveways and caddying at golf courses. He loved the challenge of making money but had little use for it.
After serving as a U.S. Air Force radio operator in Japan during the Korean war, he graduated from Cornell University and launched his career selling duty-free liquor to American sailors at Mediterranean ports in the 1950s.
The business expanded rapidly to embrace airport duty free concessions. By the late 1960s business was booming thanks to sales of duty free from Anchorage to Hong Kong. Over the decades his fortune mushroomed and so did his determination to give it away.
He rejected the trappings of the jet set, giving his money away to worthy causes with the same alacrity with which he had built one of the biggest retail empires of the 20th century.
Feeney kept his generosity secret for years, saying he did not want to "blow my own horn" or discourage others from giving to the same deserving causes.
Only in 1997 when his founding share in DFS was sold was his generosity revealed to the world. He came to the conclusion that his story should be told to promote giving while living.
The Atlantic Philanthropies, co-founded by Feeney, has given away $4 billion in a quarter of a century, including over $2 billion in the United States, more than $1 billion in Ireland, as well as large sums in Vietnam, Australia, South Africa, Thailand and Cuba, according to O'Clery's book.
Now in his mid 70s, Feeney is determined his foundation should spend its remaining fortune in his lifetime and is fond of a Gaelic proverb to explain the sense of urgency.
"There are no pockets in a shroud."
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