BY CONOR O'CLERY*
If you had been studying in the university library on an autumn day a couple of years ago, you might have encountered an elderly gentleman shuffling by, wearing an off-the-peg raincoat, a faded Hawaiian shirt and a cheap plastic watch, and carrying papers in a plastic bag. You would most likely have paid more attention to the person who was showing him around with some deference – the poet and Queen’s graduate Seamus Heaney.
Heaney’s nondescript and shy companion was Chuck Feeney, the American philanthropist revered by academic establishments in universities around the world. He had come to Belfast to see the new library, which he had helped build. But he was also interested in giving more to develop education and research at QUB.
The result of his visit that day was the announcement on 6th November that he would donate $24 million (£15 million) to Queens University to help establish a world-leading centre for experimental medicine that will specialise in finding cures for eye disease, diabetes and genetic illness, and which will open in 2016.
The $24 million gift is the biggest single donation Queen’s has ever received. It will bring the total Feeney has given to QUB through his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies in the last decade or so to a staggering $94 million.
Who is Chuck Feeney and why should he be so generous to QUB? He is not an alumnus. Charles J. Feeney was born and brought up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the son of an insurance underwriter and a nurse, both descended from Irish immigrants. His father's mother came from Larganacarran near Kinawley in County Fermanagh. He graduated from Cornell University and went on to co-found Duty Free Shoppers. Starting in the 1960s from a couple of small shops in Hawaii and Hong Kong flogging whisky and cigarettes, DFS became the biggest retailer of luxury goods in the world. By the 1980s Feeney was one of the wealthiest Americans alive.
The richer he grew, the more Chuck Feeney felt uncomfortable with great wealth and the potentially corrosive effect it might have on himself and his family. In 1984 he quietly transferred all his great fortune, apart from a small proportion, to a foundation he secretly set up in Bermuda, today known as the Atlantic Philanthropies.
Preferring not “to blow his horn” as he put it, Feeney arranged for his foundation to make grants anonymously. For years beneficiaries did not know where the money came from and if they found out they were told not to say anything or the funding would cease. When meeting university presidents Chuck would give the impression that he was simply representing a group of wealthy Americans, rather than being the actual donor.
This image was reinforced by his appearance, his shy and courteous demeanour, and his lifestyle. He invariably travels economy class. He does not own a house or car or any property, preferring to live in small apartments acquired by the foundation in different countries. He will turn up on a bus or in a taxi to initiate multi-million dollar projects
A few years ago however he went public to allow his giving to serve as an example to other wealthy people. He urges them to use their riches for good purposes during their lifetimes. His message for “giving while living”, as he calls it, is that there are no pockets in a shroud, and besides, it is a lot of fun.
He began his philanthropy in Ireland in the late 1980s with Limerick University. He has since made huge donations to all nine universities on the island – seven in the Republic and the two in Northern Ireland, namely QUB and the New University of Ulster. His giving to Ireland now exceeds $1 billion.
But his contribution goes far beyond writing cheques. Feeney brings his entrepreneurial genius to bear in his philanthropic work. Now 82 he still travels around the world several times a year seeking opportunities to put his money to good use, mainly in the United States, Ireland, Vietnam and Australia. In each of these countries he is the biggest individual philanthropist in their history.
You won’t find his name on any of the cancer research centres, student accommodations, libraries or other buildings he has funded, in Queen’s or anywhere else, because of his distaste for being acknowledged or thanked. The only honour Chuck has ever accepted is a joint law degree from the nine universities on the island of Ireland, awarded in the presence of all the university presidents and vice chancellors, including QUB’s Sir Peter Gregson, at Dublin Castle in September last. His usual response when thanked is, “I have to thank you for doing good things with the money”.
He identifies people with expertise, dedication and vision and gets them to put his dollars to work. One of these is Professor Patrick Johnston, Dean of the QUB School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences and one of the world’s leading experts in cancer research. That day when Feeney visited the McClay library, Paddy Johnston took the opportunity to show Feeney how QUB was successfully working on medical research with City Hospital. The record $24 million gift can be traced back to that encounter.
Feeney's fondation has now directed 27 grants to Queen’s University in the last twelve years. These include $3 for a study on ageing, $5 million for a centre for climate environment and chronology, $13 million for a centre for cancer research $6 million for a centre for theory and application of catalysis, $4 million for the Seamus Heaney centre for poetry, $16 milliion for a learning resource centre and $7 million for student accomodation.
Unique among big-time philanthropists, Feeney has decided to give all his money away in a specific time frame, rather than allow Atlantic Philanthropies become a perpetual foundation like some which dole out small amounts annually and pay large salaries to their staffs. By 2016 he will have given away more than $7 billion, the cash register will be empty and he will shut up shop.
He is serious about ending his life penniless. As he put it recently, tongue in cheek, he wants his last cheque to bounce.
* Conor O’Clery is a Queen’s University graduate and the author of ‘The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune’. During his time at Queen's, he also wrote for the Gown. It's nice to have you return, Conor.