David Rockefeller, University trustee and descendent of UChicago’s philanthropic founder, 1915-2017

David Rockefeller, PhD’40, a prominent philanthropist, banking executive and University trustee whose grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Sr., was the philanthropic founder of the University of Chicago, died on March 20. He was 101.

Rockefeller’s ties to the University spanned a lifetime, from touring Egypt and the Middle East as a teenager with distinguished University archaeologist James Henry Breasted to the endowment of a professorship in UChicago’s economics department, from which he received his doctorate. Rockefeller was associated with the University’s Board of Trustees for seven decades, providing a strong connection to the institution’s founding in 1890.

David Rockefeller was a leader in finance as chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and was a prominent philanthropist, serving as chairman of such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, the Council on Foreign Relations and Rockefeller University. His global work included the founding the Trilateral Commission, a non-partisan group to foster closer cooperation between the North America, Europe and Asia, and providing leadership and support for the International House Association, including International House at the University of Chicago.

“David Rockefeller led a truly remarkable life, characterized by his keen intellect, an understanding of global issues and a deep appreciation of the responsibility that his family’s legacy had given him,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “He was a generous supporter of the University and offered the benefit of his experience and good judgment. He will be remembered here for his prominent role in the University’s history.”

Rockefeller was born in New York City on June 12, 1915 to John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. He attended the Lincoln School in Harlem, which featured progressive teaching methods influenced by John Dewey. As a child and young man he knew his grandfather, the former leader of Standard Oil, who was one of the most influential corporate figures and philanthropists in American history, but whom David Rockefeller knew as a “benign, indulgent” patriarch who gave out dimes to children. “He was the least dour man I have ever known; he was constantly smiling, joking and telling shaggy dog stories,” David Rockefeller wrote in his 2003 book, Memoirs.

Rockefeller remembered a youth filled with art and travel. In 1929, at age 14, Rockefeller and members of his family toured Egypt and the Middle East at the invitation of Breasted, whose work fascinated Rockefeller’s father. Such excursions “made us feel the excitement of the opportunities open to us and recognize the role the family was playing in so many areas. These experiences gave us an education that transcended formal learning,” Rockefeller wrote about the experience.

Rockefeller graduated from Harvard College in 1936, and after a year at the London School of Economics, arrived at UChicago to pursue a PhD. The school “boasted one of the premier economics faculties in the world…the fact that Grandfather had helped found the university played a distinctly secondary role in my choice,” he recalled. His thesis, “Unused Resources and Economic Waste,” was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1940.

“David was proud of his Chicago degree and spoke often of his admiration for the great economists he had encountered here,” said President Emeritus Hanna Holborn Gray. “He liked to reminisce about his boyhood trip with James Henry Breasted, which happened as the Oriental Institute and Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt became objects of the Rockefeller family’s philanthropy.”

While working on his dissertation, Rockefeller met Margaret “Peggy” McGrath. The couple were married for 55 years until McGrath’s death in 1996.

Service and leadership on a global stage

After completing his graduate work, Rockefeller began in government service, working for New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. During World War II, he served as an intelligence officer in North Africa and the south of France, achieving the rank of captain. With the return of peace, Rockefeller embarked on his career at Chase Manhattan and worked to continue his family’s tradition of philanthropy—what John D. Rockefeller Sr. called “the art of giving.” He was first elected as a trustee of the University of Chicago on May 8, 1947. He served as a trustee until 1963, became an honorary trustee until 1966, then was a life trustee until 2007 and was a trustee emeritus at the time of his death.

Rockefeller became chairman and chief executive of Chase, where he focused on global banking and developed important relationships with numerous world leaders. He was part of a generation of Rockefellers who held a prominent place in American civic life. His brother Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York and later vice president of the United States, while his brother Winthrop Rockefeller served as governor of Arkansas.

David Rockefeller’s civic work included helping New York City through its financial crisis, serving as a key supporter of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and leading Rockefeller University as chairman of its board of trustees. His many years of service to educational, civic and cultural institutions earned Rockefeller honors, including the U.S. Legion of Merit, the French Legion of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Gray said that when Rockefeller retired from Chase, the bank’s board decided to honor him by endowing a chair in his honor, rather than through a direct gift — after all, “what could you give a Rockefeller?”

There was a competition between Harvard and the University of Chicago for the chair, which was to be in international economics. Chicago won, and Rockefeller came for the announcement and dinner that inaugurated the chair. “He always remained interested in following its progress and learning of its incumbents,” Gray said.

The chair is now held by Nobel laureate Lars Hansen, the David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor in Economics.

John W. Boyer, dean of the College and author of The University of Chicago: A History, said David Rockefeller valued what his family had begun at the University of Chicago, and he contributed to its later successes.

“David Rockefeller served with great distinction as an active trustee of the University, as a generous philanthropist in support of the University’s academic programs and as a wise adviser to several of our presidents,” Boyer said. “The gifts of his grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Sr., to the early University of Chicago were primarily responsible for the founding of one of the great new research universities in modern America, setting a model for those who would follow in advancing the well-being of American higher education and society. David Rockefeller shared with his grandfather and his father a deep conviction about the profound responsibilities that the great American universities bear in enhancing the intellectual creativity and cultural progress of American civic life.”

Rockefeller is survived by five of his children, David Rockefeller Jr., Abigail Rockefeller, Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, Peggy Dulany and Ellen Rockefeller Growald. He was preceded in death by his son Richard Rockefeller.