MOUNT DESERT — Seal Harbor summer resident David Rockefeller Sr., one of the most influential Americans of the past century in the realms of finance, philanthropy and international relations, turns 100 June 12.
With a net worth of $3.2 billion, according to “Forbes” magazine, he is the world’s oldest billionaire.
On May 22, Rockefeller announced he is giving 1,000 acres adjacent to Acadia National Park, including Little Long Pond, to the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve.
The following day, he talked about that gift, his love of Mount Desert Island and other aspects of his remarkable life in an exclusive interview with the Islander at his home in Seal Harbor.
His parents first brought him to MDI when he was three months old.
“I can’t say that I remember when I came then,” he said with a soft chuckle. “But I remember many times since, and a great many of the happy events of my life have taken place here. It’s a very significant part of my life.”
David Rockefeller is the grandson of Standard Oil Company co-founder John D. Rockefeller Sr. His parents were John D. Rockefeller Jr., the foremost philanthropist of his time, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a prominent patron of the arts.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. worked closely with the park’s biggest supporters, including George B. Dorr and Charles Eliot, and donated 9,599 acres of land to help create Acadia National Park. He also built the system of carriage roads and stone bridges that are so much a part of the park’s identity and popularity.
“As a child, I went out with him quite often when he was seeing the progress being made on the roads,” David Rockefeller said. “They are something that I have enjoyed from the early days and still do.
“I was taught as a child to ride horseback, and I’ve continued to enjoy being with horses and driving a carriage, which is something my father used to do. I drive the horses at Little Long Pond and all over the place where there are carriage roads.”
In Seal Harbor in the summer, he also enjoys going out on the water almost every day, either on his sailboat or motor yacht.
Rockefeller recalls that, as a boy, he went on nature walks with Helen Neal, whose husband was director of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor.
“She gave a course on nature study to young people like myself, including Henry Ford Jr.,” he said. “We would walk around ponds and in the fields, and she would point out things of interest. I think Henry Ford did not take great interest in it. But I took great interest and followed up on it and even went so far as making a nature study path at the Jordan Pond. So, it was an important, if small, episode in my life.”
Asked why he is donating the land around Little Long Pond – 1,000 acres of meadows, forests, streams and trails that have been kept open to the public – to the nonprofit land preserve rather than keeping it in the Rockefeller family, he said, “It is important to me personally, but so is the community here. And I like to feel that I have made a contribution that will be of lasting interest and importance to a broader part of the community.”
His daughter, Neva Goodwin, a prominent economist on the faculty of Tufts University, is currently chairman of the board of the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve.
In 2010, David Rockefeller gave the 125-acre Peggy Rockefeller Farms on Mount Desert Island to College of the Atlantic to be used for agriculture and conservation. He also gave an endowment to cover the cost of managing and maintaining the farms, which are named for his late wife.
Philanthropy comes naturally to David Rockefeller.
“From childhood, I was taught to put a contribution in the plate at church and taught that being generous to other people because we were better off was an important thing,” he said. “I think that was good advice on the part of my parents, and it has remained as something I have tried to do ever since.”
The biggest beneficiaries of his philanthropy have included Rockefeller University, which his grandfather founded; Harvard University, his alma mater; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was founded by his mother and a handful of other art patrons.
David Rockefeller began his career in banking in 1946, having earned a doctoral degree in economics from the University of Chicago. He became president of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1961 and subsequently served as the bank’s chief executive officer and chairman of the board.
In the 1950s and 1960s, he was the principal force behind the redevelopment of lower Manhattan, and more than anyone else, he was responsible for construction of the World Trade Center. The 110-story “twin towers” opened in 1973.
Rockefeller has served as an unofficial advisor to several U.S. presidents and conducted diplomacy on their behalf with foreign leaders from time to time. He has been a forceful champion of international cooperation, commerce and economic development.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Rockefeller the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which, along with the Congressional Gold Medal, is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Asked if he is optimistic about the future of the United States, he said, “I think it’s a great country, and there are more things that I’m proud of about it than the opposite. And I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue to be one of the great nations.”
Given all of his extraordinary accomplishments, the Islander asked Rockefeller what he is proudest of. After a moment’s thought, he said, “Probably more than anything else, having had some wonderful children, all of whom have lived lives that I’m proud of and who continue to give me great pleasure.”
He and his wife, Peggy, who died in 1996, had four daughters and two sons. See related story.
Asked if having the Rockefeller name, one of the most recognizable family names in the world, has been a blessing or a burden, he said, “Probably from time to time, a little of each. But I’m very proud of the name, and I think it has enabled me to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. So, I think there’s no doubt it has been a far greater benefit.”
At the end of the interview, Rockefeller agreed with a reporter’s observation that he has had “one heck of a life.”
“I am grateful for it,” he said. “In so many ways, I am more fortunate than most people, starting with a wonderful family.”
The Islander asked Rockefeller’s daughter, Neva, if he would be celebrating his 100th birthday with a big party or a quiet family gathering.
She said in an email response that there would be a family-only party at his home in New York.
“That comes to more than 20 people, counting all the grandkids, their spouses and great-grands – so not really quiet!” she said.