President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes resolved a 20 year-old mystery Saturday night when he identified philanthropist Charles F. Feeney ’56 as the visionary and original benefactor of the Cornell Tradition (Tradition). The announcement was made at a ceremony celebrating the program’s anniversary in New York before an audience of 150 current Tradition members, alumni and donors at the Millennium Broadway Hotel.
Rhodes was scheduled to present the keynote address at the event which commemorated the success of the Cornell Tradition since its inception 20 years ago. In a surprising turn of events, however, he preempted his own speech by, “unveiling the cloak of anonymity” by unmasking Feeney’s identity.
In addition to Feeney, Rhodes recognized three other members of the audience who were among the original founders of the program, including Harvey Dale ’58, Robert Beck ’42 and Jacques Nordeman.
Dale, currently dean of the New York University School of Law, at one time served as President of Atlantic Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Feeney in 1982. Beck was the dean of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration from 1961 to 1981 and Nordeman was an early adviser to Atlantic Philanthropies.
The Tradition currently awards 600 fellowships each year to students who demonstrate significant work experience, campus or community service, and academic achievement.
Susan Hitchcock, director of the Tradition, said that she was stunned by the announcement. Hitchcock received no prior notice of Rhode’s intentions and remained unsure Wednesday of the full ramifications of the announcement.
“It was definitely unexpected,” Hitchcock said. “This was something that very few of us have been able to reveal due to the requests of the donors.”
The Tradition was Feeney’s vision, and his initial gift of $7 million resulted in the establishment of the organization in 1982, according to Hitchcock. At the time, the program was designed to attract students who were interested in working to offset tuition costs.
Over the next 20 years, Feeney continued to support the Tradition through Atlantic Philanthropies.
Although Hitchcock cannot reveal Feeney’s total contribution, she said he has generously given millions of dollars to all aspects of the program, such as the annual operating budget, internships and expected savings replacements.
In addition to Feeney’s donations, the Tradition also boasts 377 endowed fellowships and receives a broad-base of support from alumni and friends world-wide, Hitchcock said. Tradition Fellowships have replaced nearly $22 million in student loans since the program was founded.
Born in Elizabeth, N.J., Feeney, 70, attended the hotel school with the assistance of a scholarship and the G.I. Bill. After he graduated, Feeney founded a chain of duty-free airport shops, called “Duty Free Shoppers,” with fellow hotel student, Robert Miller ’55. In 1960, the pair opened their first shop in Hong Kong, selling cigarettes and perfume.
Despite donating millions to education, health and human rights organizations since 1982, Feeney was determined to remain anonymous. To avoid U.S. tax disclosure laws, Feeney incorporated Atlantic Philanthropies in Bermuda and did not seek tax deductions on his donations. Even with his inclusion on Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans, Feeney’s philanthropy remained a closely kept secret.
In 1997, however, Feeney’s generosity was finally exposed. When a lawsuit filed against him by Miller, his former partner, threatened to uncover his philanthropic efforts, Feeney revealed the actions to the New York Times.
According to Julie Albertson, director of alumni programs, Feeney wanted his contributions to the Tradition to remain anonymous for fear that his efforts would overshadow the goals of the program.
“He wanted the students to be the focus of the program,” Albertson said.
Feeney has been linked to the Cornell Tradition before, but the full extent of his generosity was largely unknown to the public. The Time’s article, entitled “He Gave Away $600 Million and No One Knew,” reported that Feeney anonymously supported at least two organizations at Cornell: the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development and the Tradition.
Although the article sparked some attention at the time of its publication, the repercussions were small and Feeney’s name quickly faded from discussion, according to Hitchcock.
“After that article, [Feeney] went into the background and he was never mentioned again,” she said.
Since 1997, the media has portrayed Feeney as a reclusive, unpretentious man who shuns attention at all costs. When he was runner-up for Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 1997 — alongside Princess Diana and Alan Greenspan — the magazine depicted Feeney as a, “shabby dresser who flies coach and does not own a house or car.”
The Boston Herald reported that has Feeney declined all requests for photographs and interviews since 1997.
“Money has an attraction for some people but nobody can wear two pairs of shoes at one time,” he then told the Times.
Citing Feeney’s determination to remain anonymous, Hitchcock suggested that Rhodes may have persuaded Feeney to come forward at the anniversary celebration. Rhodes — who played a crucial role in instituting the Tradition — also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Atlantic Philanthropies.
Hitchcock praised Rhodes for implementing Feeney’s vision, along with Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, Keith Kennedy, the provost of the university in 1982, and Jim Scannell, then dean of admissions.
“President Rhodes’ role in the Tradition was crucial because of his dedication to service and work, as well as academics,” she said.
Archived article by Jason Leff