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Opinion: Remembering Charles Feeney, a life richly lived

Charles Feeney at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in 2010.
Cornell University
Charles Feeney at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in 2010.

Charles Feeney wore a $10 watch, took the bus and subway, flew coach, and lived for decades in a rented a two-bedroom apartment with his wife. By the time he died this week at the age of 92, he had given away $8 billion.

But there is no Charles Feeney Hall to enshrine his name on an ivied campus. There is no Charles Feeney wing of an acclaimed hospital, or a Feeney Planetarium. The New York Times says Mr. Feeney's philanthropic contributions funded more than 1,000 buildings on five continents. Yet his name doesn't appear on even one. Charles Feeney was accomplished, generous, and largely unknown to the general public. It's what he wanted.

Charles Feeney served in the U.S. Air Force, studied hotel management at Cornell, and then co-founded an airport business. They sold perfume, cigarettes, and liquor, duty-free, to U.S. servicemen coming home from overseas. The business grew. Charles Feeney became quite rich. He invested widely, and wisely.

But Charles Feeney also wanted something more. He had grown up in an Irish Catholic family that struggled during the Depression. "I had one idea," he said, "that you should use your wealth to help people."

Mr. Feeney eventually gave up his multiplicity of homes, from New York to Honolulu to the Riviera, sold his limousines, and began to assiduously and anonymously donate nearly all his money.

He helped support earthquake relief in Haiti; and Operation Smile, which provides surgeries for children around the world born with cleft lips and palates; AIDS relief in South Africa; public health programs in Vietnam; and hospitals and universities. He told Jim Dwyer of The New York Times he hoped putting no name on his gifts might prod others to give more—they could still get naming rights on great institutions.

Mr. Feeney had given away nearly all his fortune by 2020, and Forbes magazine noted: "He didn't wait to grant gifts after death or set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunted for causes where he can have a dramatic impact and went all-in."

Charles Feeney gave money to several groups in Northern Ireland, on both sides of the sectarian divide, to help create the incentive them to work out the Good Friday Agreementthey finally signed in 1998. It holds to this day.

Charles Feeney's generosity enriched the lives of millions who will never know his name, or how he helped. His life was truly rich.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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