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Rockefeller, Laurance Spelman

Rockefeller, Laurance Spelman

(b. 26 May 1910 in New York City; d. 11 July 2004 in New York City), philanthropist, investor, and conservationist.

Rockefeller was one of the six children of John Davison Rockefeller, Jr., a philanthropist, and Abby Greene (Aldrich) Rockefeller, a philanthropist and art collector. He was the grandson of the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and was named after his grandmother Laura. Rockefeller was strongly influenced by his mother, father, and grandfather, who instilled their strong Baptist attitudes, frugal natures, and strong work ethic in the children at an early age. As children Rockefeller and his siblings were responsible for their own decisions, were encouraged to save, and had to account for their allowance. Rockefeller’s father even paid the children for cleaning shoes and swatting flies. The family encouraged Rockefeller’s interest in wildflowers, birds, art, and conservation. The Rockefellers were taught to be good neighbors to the world and to show respect to people of every race and nationality.

Rockefeller’s schooling was started at home with tutors. When he was seven Rockefeller and his older brother were sent to the Lincoln School, an experimental learning facility administered by Teachers’ College, Columbia University. The school followed the principles of John Dewey, an advocate of learning by doing. At Lincoln, Rockefeller began to develop his passion for nature and his strong interest in travel.

Rockefeller graduated from Princeton University in 1932 with a BA in philosophy, having taken every course in the subject that the college offered. After two years at Harvard Law School, Rockefeller decided law was not for him and turned to business. In 1937 he purchased from the John D. Rockefeller estate his grandfather’s seat on the New York Stock Exchange. “I like doing constructive things with my money,” he said, “rather than just trying to make more.”

On 15 August 1934 Rockefeller married Mary French. She was the granddaughter of the conservationist and railroad president Frederick Billings. They had four children. Mary French Rockefeller died in 1997. Journalists and business associates described Rockefeller as reserved in his relations with friends and business acquaintances. He was known as being self-reliant and independent. Family and friends believed that this attitude and his great bearing were fostered by his secure and happy marriage. Rockefeller said the marriage consisted of “a wonderful feeling of partnership” with his wife.

In 1935 Rockefeller began working in the family office in Rockefeller Center in New York City. His duties included developing his knowledge and understanding of Rockefeller philanthropic activities, conservation projects, and business interests. He also developed his own special interest, blending business acumen with the talents of a “gadgeteer,” a label he gave himself. Rockefeller pursued his interest in aviation and aeronautics by helping to found Eastern Airlines in the 1930s and soon after that acquired the majority of the company stock. In the early 1940s Rockefeller’s backing of James Smith McDonnell, Jr., the St. Louis aircraft engineer and designer, helped McDonnell Aircraft Corporation become an important military contractor. Rockefeller served as a director of McDonnell Aircraft Corporation before and after the war, and in 1941 Rockefeller became chairman of the Aeronautical Committee of the Commerce and Industry Association of New York. During World War II Rockefeller served in the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics as a troubleshooter with airplane production problems. He retired with the rank of lieutenant commander.

Although he inherited a fortune, Rockefeller did not rest on his inheritance. He increased his wealth by committing himself to culturally significant and innovative enterprises. Rockefeller believed that “people who try to play it safe in the long run have very dull lives.” Because of this philosophy, business historians have praised Rockefeller for his willingness to invest at the early stages in technology-based enterprises. He was fascinated with technology and its social results. In 1946 Rockefeller became the president of the family’s venture capital firm, Rockefeller Brothers. In this position he increased the family fortune by investing in a wide range of areas, including hotels, equipment for nuclear reactors, planes, missiles, the Viking Rocket, and computers. Rockefeller had diverse responsibilities. He took his turn as chairman and director of Rockefeller Center and was a founding trustee, president, and chairman of Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He was also a director of Eastern Airlines, the chairman of Woodstock Resort Corporation, a member of the Princeton University board of trustees, and on the board of directors of the Reader’s Digest Association.

Rockefeller’s philosophy was a major factor in his conservation ethic. He was an advocate of balance, which at times meant he favored compromise. At other times he was unyielding. In most cases Rockefeller was persistent, sometimes returning much later to try once again to accomplish a task he considered worth doing. As he developed his philosophy, Rockefeller continued to expand his activities. He started the family venture Rockresorts in 1956. This group built vacation resorts in Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, and Hawaii. These properties were the forerunners of ecotourism and emphasized closeness to nature. Rockefeller believed that more and more people were seeing the importance of living “in harmony with nature and not as its adversary.” The notion, Rockefeller wrote in an article for Reader’s Digest, “that we have boundless resources of materials, manpower and spirit, and therefore can afford waste-clearly no longer is true.” The discovery that “a simpler life-style provides greater satisfaction than relentless pursuit of materialism” would provide Americans with “a major new moral and spiritual resource.”

In 1939 the governor of New York appointed Rockefeller to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. Rockefeller continued in public service for the rest of his life, acting as an adviser to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Gerald R. Ford on matters of environmental conservation and outdoor recreation. Eisenhower appointed Rockefeller chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. Rockefeller also served as the chairman of Nixon’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality, successor to a similar group he had headed under Johnson. Rockefeller played a pivotal role in the development of national parks, including Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Virgin Islands National Park on the island of Saint John, Redwood National Park in California, and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Vermont.

Rockefeller was a leader in several nonprofit and phil-anthropic organizations. He was a trustee of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (1960–1982). He started his association with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City in 1947 and served as chairman of the board from 1960 to 1982, overseeing an expansion and modernization of its operations. Rockefeller became a trustee of the New York Zoological Society when he was twenty-five years old and served terms as the president and chairman of the board.

Rockefeller received many honors for his efforts in behalf of the environment, cancer research and treatment, and the public good. In December 1959 he received the National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal for distinguished services to humanity, an honor previously received by his grandfather and father. Other awards were the Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., Memorial Award from the American Cancer Society (1969), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969), the Woodrow Wilson Award from Princeton University (1991), the Congressional Gold Medal (1991), the National Geographic Chairman’s Award (1995), the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Medal of Honor (1995), and the Lady Bird Johnson Conservation Award (1997). In 2003 Rockefeller was made an honorary citizen of the British Virgin Islands.

Rockefeller was a product of privilege, which he believed gave him a responsibility to conduct himself in an honorable way. His boyhood experiences made him aware of the value of a dollar. His early introduction to finance and interest in nature and the world made Rockefeller an advocate of preservation instead of acquisition. He believed he had a personal obligation of stewardship of nature and that a simple lifestyle was a sign of self-reliance. Rockefeller’s life’s work was both philanthropic and success oriented. He combined his personal vision for conservation, recreation, and the spiritual needs of all people. Rockefeller died of pulmonary fibrosis at his home in New York City. He is buried in the Rockefeller family cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

A biography is Robin Winks, Laurence S. Rockefeller: Catalyst for Conservation (1997). Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998), is a history of the Rockefeller family. John Ensor Harr and Peter Johnson, The Rockefeller Conscience: An American Family in Public and in Private (1991), details the Rockefellers’ postwar business practices. Obituaries are in the Boston Globe and Washington Post (both 12 July 2004) and the New York Times (13 July 2004).

Joan Goodbody

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