Jim Wilson / The New York Times

Christopher Oechsli, left, president and chief executive of Atlantic Philanthropies, sits with Cornell's largest-ever donor Chuck Feeney '56 in October 2014.

December 14, 2020

Cornell’s Largest Donor Chuck Feeney ’56 Gives Away Entire Fortune

Print More

Charles “Chuck” Feeney ’56 isn’t a movie star, yet he has earned the nickname “James Bond of Philanthropy.” 

Known for his surreptitious giving campaigns — recently donating the last of his fortune — the former hotel school student is more than a businessman. He is a philanthropic institution at Cornell and beyond — and soon, he’ll be the namesake of the road that runs through the Ithaca campus.

The University recently announced that East Avenue will be renamed “Feeney Way” to honor its most generous donor and celebrate his mark on the institution. President Martha Pollack called Feeney’s generosity to Cornell “transformative” and said it “deserves the highest recognition we can give.” 

Since his first donation more than four decades ago, Feeney has bestowed his alma mater with nearly $1 billion in funds, which have permeated the experience of virtually every student at Cornell. 

Physical markers of his giving are sprinkled around all corners of Cornell’s campus, funding everything from student scholarships to North and West Campus living facilities, hospitality research support, the Martin Y. Tang Welcome Center and athletics programs. 

“The renaming of what is an historic and foundational artery through campus is entirely appropriate — because Chuck has been foundational to Cornell,” said Robert Harrison ’76, chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees, in a University press release.

Devoting his wealth to global causes that advance human opportunity and foster equity — from health system reform to pro-democracy initiatives — Feeney has donated over $8 billion in grants to universities and charities around the world over the past 40 years. 

He espouses a “Giving While Living” mantra, harboring the belief that the wealthy should share their fortunes during their lifetime to improve the world. As a testament to this philosophy, the 89-year-old just closed The Atlantic Philanthropies after reaching his lifetime goal: donating his entire fortune. 

“Chuck has stayed true to his personal mission to thoughtfully devote all his wealth in his lifetime to help others,” Christopher Oechsli, Atlantic’s president and CEO, said in a University press release. “That has given him deep satisfaction.” 

Feeney made most of his contributions anonymously, and it was this furtive donating scheme that earned him the distinctive “James Bond of Philanthropy” nickname. 

But this is not the only nickname that the alumnus has carried throughout his career. During his time at Cornell, the first-generation college student sparked his entrepreneurial spirit through a self-started sandwich business. Although initially created to cover his remaining academic expenses, the on-campus food service was popular among students, generating great success for Feeney. His continued endeavor landed him the nickname “Sandwich Man.” 

It was from these humble beginnings that Feeney went on to build his business empire. After graduating from the Hotel School of Administration in 1956, he and his classmate Robert Miller ’56 founded Duty Free Shoppers, which eventually became the world’s most eminent luxury travel retailer. 

In a statement to the University, Feeney reflected on his experience as a Cornell student with gratitude.

“Cornell opened promising avenues for me. The Hotel School nurtured my instincts and my interests in international business opportunities,” Feeney said. “It was not too big a leap from selling sandwiches for hefty margins at Big Red games to selling cars and luxury items to international travelers.”

Using the wealth he amassed from this business venture, Feeney founded The Atlantic Philanthropies in 1982. The foundation’s establishment inaugurated Feeney’s anonymous giving campaign to the University. 

The foundation’s first nameless donation was a $7 million grant, which established the fellowship program The Cornell Tradition, which recognizes students and supports their dedication to excellence across work, service and academics.

“Cornell is both deeply grateful to Chuck for his truly extraordinary impact on our University and extremely proud of his incalculable impact on philanthropy across the world,” Fred Van Sickle, the vice president for alumni affairs and development, wrote to The Sun. “Wherever I travel, Cornellians lift Chuck Feeney up as their role model.” 

Feeney’s giving to Cornell also extends beyond Ithaca’s campus. In 2011, The Atlantic Philanthropies donated a $350 million grant — the largest-ever donation to the University and one of the largest in higher education history — to fund the construction of the Cornell Tech campus in New York City’s Roosevelt Island. 

When a business dispute in 1997 would have revealed the identity behind his donations anyways, Feeney reluctantly emerged from anonymity. Just 15 years after the founding of Atlantic, Feeney had already contributed $600 million to his beneficiaries. 

To recognize his generosity, Feeney has been awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy and a Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement award for philanthropy. Although he has been formally honored for his contributions, he refuses to formally connect the fruits of his donations to his name or The Atlantic Philanthropies. 

This humility was the reason why Cornell hadn’t named anything on campus after Feeney to recognize his contributions — until now. 

Beyond bearing his name, the University plans to include a brief description of Feeney’s life of generosity on each street sign. Feeney Way will replace East Avenue at three intersections on the Ithaca campus, and the renaming is planned for spring 2021. 

“We are delighted to celebrate him in this way,” Van Sickle said. “I am personally thrilled my own Day Hall office address is now Feeney Way.”