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Reclusive Philanthropist Steps into Spotlight

Sep 30, 2007 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Like most people, Chuck Feeney takes the subway, rides cabs, buys clothes off the rack and flies coach.

But this seemingly ordinary man is one of the most generous — and secretive — philanthropists today.

Once hailed by Forbes magazine as the 23rd richest man alive, with assets in the billions, Feeney transferred all of his wealth in 1987 to his foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies. Atlantic, which has around $4 billion in assets, gives away about $350 million a year.

Below the Radar

Born in New Jersey to a blue-collar Irish-American family, Feeney made his fortune as founder of Duty Free Shoppers, the world's largest duty-free retail chain. But he worked hard to disguise his fortune and his giving: He stayed out of the news, gave anonymously and even established Atlantic in Bermuda, to avoid disclosures required in the United States.

But today, Feeney is coming out of the shadows by cooperating in a new biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune, by Conor O'Clery.

In his first radio interview, Feeney tells guest host James Hattori that his foundation is also taking on a more public role after it became "synonymous with anonymous." At 76, Feeney says the time felt right to share his story.

"It's a time and tide thing. I'm not getting any younger, and I thought there would be some advantage to talking about giving while living," he says.

Good Works

Feeney doesn't consider himself cheap, just frugal. He says he respects money and hates to see it wasted — values that he instilled in his five children early on.

Feeney's greatest satisfaction comes from seeing his foundation's money going to work around the world. On a recent trip to Vietnam, where Atlantic was supporting Operation Smile, a Va.-based charity that performs free surgery for children with facial deformities, Feeney saw firsthand how using money for good changes lives.

"I watched a little girl cover her face up and leave her hands in front of her mouth," Feeney recalls. "I saw that girl after surgery, and she was smiling ... that's a great source of satisfaction."

Atlantic does not accept proposals, but rather chooses its own projects. So far, its funds have reached disadvantaged people in Ireland, Australia and South Africa, among other countries. Feeney says he's determined to see the foundation give away its entire endowment before he dies.

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