Chuck Feeney might be the only billionaire to ever be happy about going broke. It started in 1960 when Feeney helped launch an airport gift shop business that quickly grew into the largest travel retailer in the world. While this made the American businessman a billionaire many times over, such wealth did not sit well with him. So, in 1982 Feeney created the Atlantic Foundation, a charitable organization charged with distributing the greater part of his wealth to a variety of institutions. Since then, the "James Bond of philanthropy" has clandestinely donated more than $8 billion to worthy causes worldwide. To recognize his generosity, Feeney has been awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy and a Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement award for philanthropy. And yet, despite this public recognition, Feeney still refuses to formally connect the fruits of his donations to his name.
Feeney's entrepreneurial spirit was undoubtedly stoked when he arrived at the Cornell campus in the early 1950's, fresh from the Korean War. At Cornell, Feeney launched a sandwich business on campus so profitable that he was known by fellow students as "The Sandwich Man." On late weekend nights, he'd stand outside the fraternity houses and blow a whistle to alert students (some of them possibly intoxicated) that he was now open for business. By the time he graduated from Cornell's School of Hotel Administration in 1956, Feeney had sold thousands of sandwiches. He then used his campus earnings to travel to Europe and eventually start his multibillion-dollar business empire from Hong Kong.
"The Hotel School nurtured my instincts and my interests in international business opportunities," Feeney said, describing the importance of his Cornell years. "It was not too big a leap from selling sandwiches for hefty margins at Big Red games to selling cars and luxury items to international travelers."
These days, physical markers of Feeney's affection towards his alma mater are sprinkled all over the Ithaca campus. During the past four decades, Feeney has bestowed Cornell with $1 billion in funds, subsidizing student scholarships, campus living facilities, tech research, hospitality research support, administration buildings, and even athletics programs.
Hoping to recognize this unprecedented generosity, university leaders recently announced plans to rename East Avenue (one of the main campus roads) as Feeney Way. In addition, Feeney has been tied to Cornell in numerous ways. Earlier he was made a life member of the Cornell University Council, and a member of the SHA Dean’s Advisory Board, while receiving the Icon of the Industry Award from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration in 2010. Finally, in a symbolic gesture of coming full circle, one of Feeney's final official grants to Cornell was another $7 million to build the program’s endowment, thus ensuring that his beloved alma mater would be prepared in the future to welcome the world's next budding philanthropists.