MOUNT DESERT — Longtime Seal Harbor summer resident David Rockefeller Sr. died in his sleep at his Pocantico Hills, N.Y., home on Monday, March 20, at the age of 101. Rockefeller was born in Manhattan on June 12, 1915, the youngest child of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, his son David Rockefeller Jr. said that the combination of his father’s extraordinary ability to focus and his broad interest allowed him to make a mark in banking, international trade, international relations, art, science and the environment.
“There is no place he loved better than the coast of Maine. He was thrilled to spend time here and with his wife to sail along the coast,” said Rockefeller Jr. After his wife’s death in 1996, David Rockefeller Sr. still sailed, and in more recent years, enjoyed picnics on his motor boat, Sea Smoke. Because of their concern that the coast could become overdeveloped, Rockefeller supported his wife, Margaret McGrath Rockefeller, in founding the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT).
“David Rockefeller extended a family legacy of conservation that is without parallel in the world,” said MCHT President Tim Glidden. “Maine is fortunate to have had such a friend, dedicated to ensuring that the state’s rich natural heritage is available to all and secure for all generations to come. We at Maine Coast Heritage Trust are grateful for the opportunity to have been one of the many channels through which he pursued his and Peggy’s vision of a better world with such stunning generosity.”
Another love of David and Peggy Rockefeller was a love of gardens. That love and the Rockefellers’ conservation ethic led to their establishing the Land and Garden Preserve of Mount Desert Island – a preserve that includes the Asticou Azalea Garden, Thuya Garden and Lodge and the 1,000 acres around Little Long Pond that Rockefeller Sr. gave to the people of Mount Desert Island on his 100th birthday. “With his death, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Gardens will in the near future be formally added to the preserve – a preserve that my family established and protected, that connects with the park, and that now stretches from the Azalea Gardens in Northeast Harbor to Seal Harbor,” said Rockefeller Jr.
But the Rockefellers were interested in more than protecting land. They also placed great emphasis on ensuring public access. The latter was one of the goals John D. Rockefeller Jr. had in building the 57-mile carriage road system and in purchasing and donating land to Acadia National Park.
In a 2015 interview with the Islander, Rockefeller Sr. said that he donated the 1,000 acres of meadows, forests, streams and trails because ensuring public access “… is important to me personally, but so is the community here. And I like to feel that I have made a contribution here that will be of lasting interest and importance to a broader part of the community.”
Prior to 2015, the 1,000 acres had been owned and cared for by David Rockefeller Sr., said Rodney Eason, the preserve’s CEO. “When Mr. Rockefeller gave it to the Land and Garden Preserve, it became our responsibility to maintain the land and to keep the carriage roads and trails open and usable. By placing them under a conservation easement, Mr. Rockefeller assured public access in perpetuity,” said Eason.
For the preserve, overseeing the Little Long Pond land and the three gardens is a fortuitous challenge, but one Eason feels the preserve is uniquely qualified to address. In addition to professional staff, the preserve has a “fantastic board of directors, supporters and committed volunteers – people who are passionate about caring for and preserving the land and gardens for current and future generations.”
Rockefeller’s ties to Mount Desert Island are longstanding. His parents first brought him to Seal Harbor when he was three months old; he spent most summers here and often visited the island at various times during the year. In a 2015 interview with the Islander, Rockefeller said he did not remember his first visit, but he did remember many subsequent ones. “A great number of the happy events in my life have taken place here. It’s a very significant part of my life.”
Rockefeller spent last summer here and with many others celebrated the 100th anniversary of Acadia and the National Park Service. “In this centennial year, I have appreciated the opportunity to interact with David, an incredible person,” said ANP Superintendent Kevin Schneider. “It was personally fulfilling to see him, work with him and get to know him—for me it’s was one of the highlights of Acadia’s centennial. The Rockefellers [John D. Jr, Laurance and David Sr.] have played an incredible role in Acadia and the Grand Tetons – two parks where I served. It’s a family unparalleled in the nation’s history. Acadia welcomed 3.3 million visitors last year, and Grand Tetons 3.2 million.
“As a superintendent, it’s humbling and daunting to be a steward of the Rockefeller family’s vision and to have shared responsibility for this special place: Acadia is hallowed ground.”
David Rockefeller Sr.’s connection to the island and Acadia National Park has played out in many venues over many years. “Mr. Rockefeller was active in his commitment and leadership here at Acadia right up until the time of his death, serving for the past three years as an honorary chairman of FOA’s Second Century Campaign,” said Friends of Acadia President David MacDonald. “He also was instrumental in FOA’s earliest years, helping to launch the campaign to restore and maintain Acadia’s carriage roads in the early 1990s.”
Both MacDonald and David Rockefeller Jr. spoke of Rockefeller Sr.’s role in fostering public-private partnerships. Following the example of his father, who funded the construction of Rockefeller Center at the height of the Great Depression, Rockefeller Sr., beginning in the late 40s, worked to help fund, among other projects worldwide, public housing and the World Trade Center in New York and the downtown waterfront district in San Francisco. In Acadia, he worked with government and Friends of Acadia to spur the public-private partnership that reconstructed the carriage roads, roads that had deteriorated since his father’s death in 1960.
In 1991, then-Secretary of the Interior Manuel Luhan announced the partnership: the federal government would provide $4 million and FOA another $4 million. The success of this endeavor led to another public-private partnership in Acadia – the $13 million campaign to restore and maintain Acadia’s trail system. The government contributed $4 million from entrance fees and other funding, and FOA gave $9 million, with a lead gift of $5 million from Ruth and Tris Colket.
“He loved this place dearly and was always willing to help us in our work to preserve and protect Acadia. Not only was he generous with his own support, but he was unfailing in his ability to encourage others to join him in doing the same. He was writing notes and hosting meetings and attending events right through his very last summer here during Acadia’s centennial year,” said MacDonald.
Another island institution that benefitted from Rockefeller’s support and interest was College of the Atlantic (COA). “Mr. Rockefeller’s support of the college in its earliest days was extremely valuable, giving us some sense of financial stability and an immediate boost of credibility with others,” said President Darron Collins.
In addition to this support, Rockefeller also gave the Cameron and DeLaittre farms to the college and established the David Rockefeller Family Chair in Ecosystem Management and Protection.
In an interview Tuesday, David Rockefeller Jr. alluded to his father’s many accomplishments beyond Mount Desert Island. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded David Rockefeller Sr. the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his citation, President Clinton called him a “gentleman, statesman, scholar, educator and genuine humanitarian.”
One of the themes that emerged from Rockefeller’s 2003 biography “Memoirs” is that individuals, businesses, corporations and governments have a moral and ethical responsibility to address society’s problems – a theme that not only defined him as a person and philanthropist, but one that has inspired his children and grandchildren.
“My cousins and I mourn the passing of our kind and loving grandfather, David Rockefeller, who served as model and inspiration to us and the wider Rockefeller family,” said Michael Quattrone, grandson and executive director of the David Rockefeller Fund.
“He embodied the values of reverence for the Earth, stewardship of the arts and service to humanity. He taught us to leave the world a better place than we found it through hard work, strong and diverse relationships and generosity.
“We are grateful for his vision of the David Rockefeller Fund as a way to engage his descendants in meaningful work across generations. His generosity and wisdom have made possible a new generation of family members committed to a more just, creative and flourishing world.”
In concluding his remarks about his father, David Rockefeller Jr. echoed his nephew’s comments and restated how much his father loved this island, its people and its many institutions. Not only was that love evident in David’s Rockefeller Sr.’s stewardship and philanthropy, but it also is a love David Rockefeller Jr. hopes the extended family continues.
In addition to his son David Rockefeller Jr., Rockefeller is survived by his daughters, Abigail Aldrich “Abby” Rockefeller, Neva Goodwin, Eileen Rockefeller Growald and Margaret “Peggy” Dulany Rockefeller. He was predeceased by his wife, Peggy (McGrath), and son Richard.
A memorial service is being planned for David Rockefeller Sr. later this spring. At press time, the details had not yet been finalized.