Cornell has renamed East Avenue to Feeney Way, honoring long-term donor Charles “Chuck” Feeney ’56.
Feeney has contributed almost $1 billion to Cornell over the past 40 years, often anonymously. Now, the oft-used street, running through central campus from Milstein Hall to Duffield Hall, pays homage to the former hotelie who made billions — and then gave it all away.
“We have wanted to recognize Chuck’s incredible generosity for many, many years, but he refused,” said Robert Harrison ’76, chair of the Board of Trustees. “It wasn’t until this specific opportunity that he finally agreed.”
Cornell unveiled the new signage on April 23, Feeney’s 90th birthday. Founder of Atlantic Philanthropies and proponent of “giving while living,” Feeney has donated almost his entire fortune of $8 billion to support causes around the world, including peace-making in Ireland, health care in Vietnam and AIDS treatments in southern Africa. Because he kept his gifts secret for so long, some label him the “James Bond of philanthropy.”
At Cornell, Feeney’s contributions helped create the Robert A. and Jan M. Beck Center at the School of Hotel Administration, the Martin Y. Tang Welcome Center and both North and West campuses. His donations also established the Cornell Tradition program, which financially supports student opportunities, and secured the University’s ability to build Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island in New York City with the largest-ever donation to the University.
Harrison remembers when Feeney helped make Cornell Tech a reality in 2011. In the last minute of Cornell’s pitch to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, former President David Skorton announced that an anonymous donor — Feeney — was prepared to commit $350 million to support the new campus.
“Every jaw on the other side of the room dropped,” Harrison said. “They had made what was a theoretical, great idea into reality. There was no question that we were going to be able to complete the job, because we had the funding.” Harrison said he hopes to name part of the new tech campus after Feeney, if he allows.
Feeney also funded part of Cornell Tradition, initially founded in 1982 with $7 million. The program has received more than $40 million from Atlantic Philanthropies today and has served more than 6,000 students.
Massimo Carbone ’22, a Tradition Fellow and co-chair of its student advisory committee, receives part of his financial aid package from the program. He said that Feeney deserves the renaming honor.
Carbone said when he walks down the new Feeney Way with his friends, he likes to “brag to them a little bit” about Cornell Tradition and the history that made it possible.
“Without that monetary support, my experience as a whole might not even be possible, so I’m very grateful for the program,” Carbone said.
With additional recent donations, Atlantic Philanthropies has permanently endowed the program, according to Tradition program coordinator Suzanne Horning. She said the East Avenue renaming “does [her] heart great good.”
“When you’re committed to service, sometimes you don’t get a lot of thanks, but you’re doing really important stuff,” Horning said, adding that Feeney’s name is a reminder of what can come from hard work, hoping that it will affirm students.
According to a University press release, Feeney, of Irish-American background, was born in New Jersey during the Great Depression and came to Cornell on the GI Bill as the first in his family to attend college. He eventually co-founded Duty Free Shoppers, the source of his fortune. At the time, the business sold cars and liquor duty free to travelers.
While at Cornell, Feeney began his business career selling sandwiches at sports games and in student residences. Dan Silverberg ’56 graduated from the School of Hotel Administration with Feeney and remembers the wicker baskets he used to carry the sandwiches. He also noted how involved Feeney later became in the Class of 1956’s fundraising efforts.
During their 25th reunion, Silverberg said, Feeney helped the class raise about $2 million — $1 million above their goal. In later competitions with the Class of 1955, Feeney was determined to make sure his class outperformed the other. All the while, Silverberg said, Feeney insisted his donations remain anonymous.
Silverberg recalled that a few years ago, Feeney said he didn’t own a tie of his own. News reports say Feeney prefers to fly coach over first class and uses tape to fasten his photographs on his walls.
Avhan Misra ’24, who was walking down Feeney Way on Tuesday, said he respected the honoree’s humility.
“He was not looking for any glory or valor when he donated. I think it only makes sense to give him a small piece of our campus, especially something so integral,” said Misra, who uses the street daily to get between his North Campus dorm and the engineering quad.
Harrison, who has experience working with philanthropists, said Feeney’s generosity and preference for anonymity are “extraordinary.”
“I really can’t see anyone who rises to his level of both generosity and impact, and I think having a street that goes from one end of the campus to another and passes his hotel school where he graduated — I can’t think of a more appropriate way of honoring him,” Harrison said.