David Rockefeller, billionaire philanthropist and banker, dead at 101

David Rockefeller at a 2015 ceremony in Mount Desert, Maine, marking the gift of 1,000 acres of woodlands, streams, hiking trails and carriage roads abutting Acadia National Park. The last surviving grandson of the oil tycoon John Rockefeller Sr., he died Monday at age 101.

AP

Last Updated Mar 20, 2017 2:36 PM EDT

A billionaire philanthropist who was the last of his generation in the famously philanthropic Rockefeller family has died. David Rockefeller was 101 years old.

Rockefeller’s spokesman, Fraser P. Seitel, said he died peacefully in his sleep Monday morning at his home in Pocantico Hills, New York.

Rockefeller was the sixth child of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller, who became the world’s first billionaire -- and made the family the wealthiest in U.S. history.

With the passing of his elder siblings, Rockefeller was at the head of a sprawling network of family interests, both business and philanthropic, that range from environmental conservation to the arts.

He also headed what is now JP Morgan Chase (JPM) in the 1970s, expanding the bank’s reach internationally. A devoted art collector, he chaired New York’s Museum of Modern Art for many years, an institution his mother helped found in 1929.

He led a coalition of business leaders to help find a solution to New York City’s financial crisis in the mid-1970s.

To mark his 100th birthday in 2015, he gave 1,000 acres of land next to a national park to Maine.

“Long before it became popular wisdom, he believed effective partnerships across sectors and geographies was the only way to affect lasting change,” said Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, the charitable organization the family established in 1913, in a statement.  

Aspects of the Rockefeller brothers’ upbringing became famous, including their 25-cent allowance – they had to set aside some of it for charity and savings -- and their instruction in the family’s belief that wealth brings great responsibility.

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A portrait of David Rockefeller’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Sr., in 1885, when he was approximately 46.

The Rockefeller Archive Center

Two of his brothers held elected office: Nelson Rockefeller served as the governor of New York, hungered for the White House and briefly served as vice president. Winthrop Rockefeller was a governor of Arkansas.

David Rockefeller, however, wielded power and influence without ever seeking public office. Among his many accomplishments were spurring the project that led to the World Trade Center.

And unlike his other brothers, John D. III and Laurance, who shied from the spotlight and were known for philanthropy, David Rockefeller embraced business, traveling and speaking widely as a champion of enlightened capitalism.

“American capitalism has brought more benefits to more people than any other system in any part of the world at any time in history,” he said. “The problem is to see that the system is run as efficiently and as honestly as it can be.”

Rockefeller graduated from Harvard in 1936 and received a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago in 1940. He served in the Army during World War II, then began climbing the ranks of management at Chase Bank. That bank merged with the Manhattan Company in 1955.

He was named Chase Manhattan’s president in 1961 and chairman and chief executive officer eight years later. He retired in 1981 at age 65 after a 35-year career.

In his role of business statesman, Rockefeller preached capitalism at home and favored assisting economies abroad on grounds that bringing prosperity to the Third World would create customers for American products.

He parted company with some of his fellow business leaders on income taxes, calling it unseemly to earn $1 million and then find ways to avoid paying taxes on it. He didn’t say how much he paid in taxes and never spoke publicly about his personal worth. In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated his fortune at $3 billion.

As one of the Rockefeller grandchildren, David belonged to the last generation in which the inherited family billions were concentrated in a few hands. The next generation, known as “the cousins,” has more people.

Rockefeller was estimated to have met more than 200 rulers in more than 100 countries during his lifetime, and often was treated as if he were a visiting head of state.

Under Rockefeller, Chase was the first U.S. bank to open offices in the Soviet Union and China and, in 1974, the first to open an office in Egypt after the Suez crisis of 1956.

In his early travels to South Africa, Rockefeller arranged clandestine meetings with several underground black leaders. “I find it terribly important to get overall impressions beyond those I get from businessmen,” he said.

But Rockefeller took a lot of heat for his bank’s substantial dealings with South Africa’s white separatist regime and for helping the deposed, terminally ill Shah of Iran come to New York for medical treatment in 1979, the move that triggered the 13-month U.S. embassy hostage crisis in Tehran.

Rockefeller maintained the family’s patronage of the arts. His private art collection was once valued at $500 million. The Rockefeller estate overlooking the Hudson River north of New York City is the repository of four generations of family history, including Nelson’s art and sculpture collection.

One of the major efforts of Rockefeller’s later years was directed at restoring family influence in the landmark Rockefeller Center, most of which had been sold in the 1980s to Japanese investors. He eventually organized an investor group to buy back 45 percent of the property.

His philanthropy and other activities earned him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1998.

Rockefeller and his wife, the former Margaret McGrath, married in 1940 and had six children — David Jr., Richard, Abby, Neva, Margaret and Eileen. His wife, an active conservationist, died in 1996.