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David Rockefeller, 1915-2017

By Karen HudesMar 20 2017

David Rockefeller, who had been the last surviving child of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, passed away on March 20, 2017, at age 101. In his long life, his achievements in the fields of business and philanthropy made an impact on a global scale, and his initiatives are still felt in areas as diverse as the arts, biomedical research and the environment.

The grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller Sr., David was born on June 12, 1915, and grew up with five older siblings, including Nelson, future governor of New York and vice president of the United States. While he was raised amid one of the largest family fortunes ever amassed, he was instilled with a serious work ethic. After witnessing his father's founding of Rockefeller Center—where David would later manage the family trusts from the 56th floor—he went on to attend Harvard, the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago, where he received a PhD in economics in 1940. He served in the army and later joined Chase, overseeing its 1955 merger with the Bank of Manhattan to become Chase Manhattan Bank, and eventually becoming CEO and chair of the board of directors, greatly expanding its international presence.

After retirement, he focused on philanthropic pursuits, and became chair of the Rockefeller Group. He helped revive Rockefeller Center in the 1990s, and made substantial donations to the Museum of Modern Art (which his mother co-founded), The Rockefeller University and Harvard, in addition to donating land to Rockefeller State Park in New York, and the Land and Garden Preserve of Mount Desert Island in Maine.

David was also devoted to his family. In 1940 he married Margaret "Peggy" McGrath, a conservationist who passed away in 1996, with whom he had six children. Much of the family's work continues through the Rockefeller Foundation, which has a global mission to support human and environmental well-being, as well as through other organizations such as the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.

Learn more about David Rockefeller's life in this Front & Center post from 2015, on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

Updated July, 7th, 2015:

It’s a rare milestone when a person turns 100 years old, but for David Rockefeller, the only surviving child of John D., Jr., and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and the world’s oldest billionaire, it’s just one more feat in a long list of achievements. A leading financier and philanthropist, he has shaped the world of international banking and has provided generous and influential support to everything from biomedical research at The Rockefeller University to the Museum of Modern Art to the protection of coastal Maine.

David Rockefeller, the last of John and Abby’s six children, was born on June 12, 1915, in the private infirmary his parents built in their nine-story mansion on West 54th Street. (At the time, their home was the largest private residence in the city—in addition to the infirmary, it contained a gymnasium, a squash court and a music room with its own pipe organ.) He was 16 when his father began the construction of Rockefeller Center in 1931, and much later in life he would oversee the family trusts from his office on the 56th floor.

Despite being the youngest in his family, Rockefeller developed a close relationship with his grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the founder of Standard Oil, whom he would visit regularly as child. According to David’s autobiography, Memoirs, the elder Rockefeller believed that David, of all his brothers, was the most like him—a fact that clearly had an impact on the younger man and his future career choices.

Bright and driven, the youngest Rockefeller attended Harvard, the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago, where he received a PhD in economics in 1940. In 1942, he enlisted in the army, and after serving in North Africa and France, was discharged in 1945, having reached the rank of captain. A year after his return, he joined Chase National Bank as an assistant manager in its foreign department, and rose to become a senior vice president by 1952. He helped oversee the 1955 merger of Chase National and the Bank of Manhattan to become Chase Manhattan Bank (which later merged with J.P. Morgan & Co. in 2000, creating J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, its name today). By 1969, Rockefeller had become CEO as well as chairman of its board of directors. Under his guidance, the bank’s global presence grew from just nine international branches to dozens in at least 70 countries. By the time he retired in 1981, foreign business made up most of the bank’s profit and Rockefeller, who, by his own estimates, had logged more than 5 million air miles and visited 103 countries, had become a powerful, influential player in the global financial and foreign relations worlds. 

When he retired, Rockefeller, following in the spirit of his father and grandfather, began devoting his days to philanthropic pursuits. He also served as chairman of the Rockefeller Group, managing the family's foundations, overseeing the financing of Rockefeller Center and the sale of stakes in the landmark in the 1980s, and helping to revive the complex in the 1990s.

In addition to his substantial donations to MoMA (which his mother co-founded) and The Rockefeller University, in 2008 he gave $100 million to Harvard, which at the time was the largest gift from an alumnus in the university’s history. Earlier this year, he donated $4 million and 1,400 acres to Rockefeller State Park in New York, and for his 100th birthday in June, he donated 1,000 acres of fields, streams, forests and a freshwater pond to the Land and Garden Preserve of Mount Desert Island in Maine.

Today, Rockefeller is worth an estimated $3.2 billion. In 2010, he signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to pledge at least half of their assets to philanthropy. “Our family continues to be united in the belief that those who have benefited the most from our nation’s economic system have a special responsibility to give back to our society in meaningful ways,” he wrote at the time. “I am pleased to say this has long been my intent and my practice...” Indeed, he and his six children, all of whom are or were dedicated to public service (his son Richard, a physician who was instrumental in establishing Doctors Without Borders here in the United States, died tragically in a plane crash in 2014), have upheld that philosophy. 

Born privileged, yet ingrained with a strong work ethic and social consciousness, David Rockefeller has done much to shape the world as we know it. A decade ago, when The New York Times asked him why he wrote Memoirs, he responded, “'Well, it just occurred to me that I had led a rather interesting life.” Yes, he certainly has.

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