Chuck Feeney pictured against a blue sky

Remembering Chuck Feeney ’56, Cornell’s ‘Third Founder’

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The Hotelie and generous Cornell benefactor—namesake of the Hill’s ‘Feeney Way’—has passed away at 92

This story was condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Joe Wilensky

Charles F. “Chuck” Feeney ’56, founding chairman of The Atlantic Philanthropies and Cornell University’s most generous donor, died October 9 in San Francisco. He was 92.

Feeney, who quietly devoted his fortune to worldwide causes for decades, invested nearly $1 billion in Cornell through the foundation since 1982. The late President Frank H.T. Rhodes referred to him as Cornell’s “third founder”—behind only Ezra Cornell and the University’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, in the magnitude of his influence and impact.

The Ithaca campus thoroughfare formerly known as East Avenue was renamed “Feeney Way” in 2021
East Avenue was renamed in Feeney’s honor in 2021. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

However, for more than two decades, Feeney’s giving through The Atlantic Philanthropies was completely anonymous—neither his name nor Atlantic’s appeared on any University building, professorship, or program.

Even after he was thrust into the limelight when his association with Atlantic became public, he resisted any memorials to his giving, preferring instead for the focus to be on the beneficiaries of his support.

In 2021, Cornell renamed East Avenue on the Ithaca campus “Feeney Way” in honor of his 90th birthday, to recognize his impact on the University, and as an inspiration to future generations of Cornellians.

Feeney, right, with Jack Clark, dean of what was then the School of Hotel Administration, during Hotel Ezra Cornell in 1989
Attending Hotel Ezra Cornell in 1989. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

A second “Feeney Way” will be named on a central thoroughfare on the Cornell Tech campus in New York City, Cornell announced earlier this year.

“Chuck Feeney, in his life and in his lasting legacy, set an inspirational standard of what it means to be a Cornellian,” says President Martha E. Pollack. “His life’s mission of consequential philanthropy, the breathtaking impact of his giving to his alma mater, and the way his quiet example has motivated so many others, has been immeasurably transformative to Cornell and to Cornellians.”

Chuck Feeney, in his life and in his lasting legacy, set an inspirational standard of what it means to be a Cornellian.

President Martha E. Pollack

Among the highlights of The Atlantic Philanthropies’ impact on Cornell are the record-setting $350 million grant (initially made anonymously) that funded much of the construction and program development for the first phase of the Cornell Tech campus; the creation of the Cornell Tradition (see below), which awards fellowships to outstanding undergraduates; and support that touched nearly every corner of Cornell—transforming undergrad residential life, increasing access to financial aid, and revitalizing the sciences, humanities, and social sciences.

Beyond Cornell, Feeney and The Atlantic Philanthropies gave $7 billion over three decades, dramatically advancing global education, health, research and innovation, human rights, and peacemaking efforts.

The Cornell Tradition: A Feeney Legacy

Atlantic’s first investment in Cornell was an anonymous $7 million grant in 1982 to establish The Cornell Tradition, an undergraduate fellowship program combining work, service, and scholarship opportunities to instill a strong work ethic in civic-minded students. The foundation subsequently gave nearly $41 million to the program—supporting more than 6,000 students and, through student loan relief, enabling many to pursue careers in public service. Symbolically coming full circle, one of Atlantic’s final official grants to Cornell was another $7 million to build the program’s endowment in 2016.

“Chuck Feeney was a cherished Cornellian whose impact is immeasurable,” says Kraig Kayser, MBA ’84, chair of the Board of Trustees.

“His philanthropic support across many campus priorities—including the founding gift for Cornell Tech—will be felt for generations. He traced his visionary commitment to ‘giving while living’ to Cornell’s ‘… any person … any study’ principles, and just as Cornell’s ethos was foundational to Chuck, he became foundational to Cornell. The entire community sends its condolences to his family, as he will be missed.”

Charles Francis Feeney was born April 23, 1931, into a working-class, Irish-American immigrant family in Elizabeth, NJ.

He enrolled in the School of Hotel Administration—now the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration—in 1952 with support from the G.I. Bill. He was the first in his family to go to college.

His entrepreneurial drive was apparent immediately: he famously created a sandwich business at Cornell that became so profitable his freshman classmates dubbed him “the sandwich man.”

After graduation, Feeney traveled to Europe, enrolled in a graduate program in political science at the Université Grenoble in France, and started a summer camp for children of American military personnel.

Feeney’s photo in the 1956 Cornellian yearbook
In the 1956 yearbook. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

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In 1960, Feeney and fellow Hotelie Robert Miller ’55 co-founded Duty Free Shoppers—at first selling to sailors serving with the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet, then at Honolulu International Airport, and subsequently expanding to airports in Europe, Hong Kong, and beyond. Duty Free Shoppers soon became the largest seller of luxury goods in the world.

In 1984, Feeney secretly gave away nearly all his fortune by transferring the vast majority of his stake in Duty Free Shoppers (estimated at more than $500 million at the time) to create and establish The Atlantic Philanthropies, reducing his own wealth to less than $5 million.

Just as Cornell’s ethos was foundational to Chuck, he became foundational to Cornell.

Kraig Kayser, MBA ’84, Board of Trustees chair

In its early years, Atlantic directed much of its giving to higher education; it later refined its areas of focus, identifying four key priorities: aging; children and youth; population health; and reconciliation and human rights.

Feeney insisted on anonymity for the foundation’s donations and his involvement.

According to his authorized biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune (2007) by Conor O’Clery, this was partly due to modesty, and partly out of concern that giving publicly and generously to an organization might discourage others from giving to the same organization.

A member of what Rhodes often referred to as the “Super Class of 1956” for its record-breaking philanthropy and service, Feeney was long known for being shy and modest, flying coach, wearing $15 watches and sweaters with holes, and not owning a home or tuxedo.

It wasn’t until the 1997 sale of Duty Free Shoppers that Feeney became known as the philanthropist behind The Atlantic Philanthropies and its many billions of dollars in giving over the years, and for his tremendous impact on Cornell.

He later authorized his biography to encourage others to follow his example.

In 2011, Feeney became a signatory of the Giving Pledge, created by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates with the aim of motivating the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice, preferably while the donors are still alive—the essence of Feeney’s philosophy.

In 2014, he was honored with the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy, presented to him by Buffett.

Feeney and his wife, Helga, pictured in 2017 in San Francisco where they watched a livestream of Cornell Tech campus dedication events
He and wife Helga watched a livestream of the Cornell Tech dedication in 2017. (Provided)

“Chuck has set an example,” Buffett said. “He is my hero and Bill Gates’s hero. He should be everybody’s hero.”

In 2015 Feeney was one of three Cornellians awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, given to families and individuals worldwide who have dedicated their private wealth to the public good.

In 2020, when the University announced that it would—with Feeney’s permission—rename East Avenue in his honor, he said he was humbled.

“Cornell’s culture of affording any person an opportunity for study in any area of interest informed my commitment to ‘give while living’—to use wealth to create opportunities for others, especially for those who have not historically had those opportunities,” he said.

“I hope Feeney Way will help awaken and nurture that spirit in those who walk Cornell’s paths.”

Top: Photo by Shane O’Neill.

Published October 10, 2023

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