Profiles in Greatness: The Rockefellers

UPDATED: October 3, 2011
PUBLISHED: October 3, 2011

Rumored at one time to be the wealthiest man who had ever lived, John D. Rockefeller, the key founder of Standard Oil, always understood the importance of giving back, even when he was at the center of controversy. His legacy of giving has far outlived him, as his descendants have continued the family’s philanthropy. Up until World War II, the Rockefeller Foundation provided more worldwide aid than the U.S. government. The family’s commitment to giving, even in the toughest times, reminds us all of the rewards of caring for our earth and our fellow men.

“The time will come when men of wealth will more generally be willing to use it for the good of others.” —John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), the recognized patriarch of the Rockefeller family that grew to prominence over the course of a century and half, both through its business interests and its massive philanthropic efforts, was not born to great wealth. But he was born with a sense of commitment to others. Even while a teenager, the future oil magnate donated money from his first paychecks to his church, influenced in large part by his mother, Eliza, a devout Baptist who taught her children the value of hard work, saving money and giving to charity.

After founding the Standard Oil Company in 1870, along with three others, Rockefeller used his innate skills as an executive and a cost-cutter to build a fortune for his family. He was among the first American businessmen to grasp the wealth-building power of integrating business both vertically and horizontally. By 1913, his net wealth was estimated at $900 million, an astounding figure for the early 20th century.

“The only question with wealth is what do you do with it?” —John D. Rockefeller

While Rockefeller himself never benefited from a college education (he attended Cleveland Central High School until age 16), he recognized the link between education and opportunity. At the end of the 19th century, only about 4 percent of U.S. young people attended post-secondary schools. Rockefeller made it one of his many goals to provide greater educational opportunities to the nation’s youth. He made his first major donation in 1889 to found a Baptist college in Chicago. It was the first of a series of gifts totaling some $35 million that would create what came to be known as the University of Chicago.

Rockefeller also provided funding for the creation of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later renamed Rockefeller University) in New York City. And in 1903, he established the General Education Board, spending $129 million on the initiative, to promote education without consideration of sex, race or religion. The board became noted for its work in the American South, where it helped establish schools for African- American students and also helped fund and develop the concept of linking agricultural research with practices in the field—what is today the Cooperative Extension Service.

“The best philanthropy is constantly in search of the finalities—a search for a cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”—John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller was so inspired by the power of philanthropic work that he retired from Standard Oil in 1897 to devote all his attention to giving. In 1913, he founded the Rockefeller Foundation with the express mission “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” He provided the foundation with $100 million to get started and made his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., its president.

During this time, the family was contending with the impacts of a United Mine Workers strike in Colorado that had left several people dead and placed John Jr. before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations. But this difficult time for the family and their business, including a massive amount of negative press, did not deter the Rockefellers’ emphasis on giving.

Rockefeller was passionate about furthering medical research to improve the human condition. He financed an initiative to fight hookworm in the South, and by 1927, the disease was entirely eliminated from the U.S. landscape. Scientists in a Rockefeller Foundation lab also developed a vaccine for yellow fever.

The Rockefellers always sought to be on the cutting edge of medical and scientific research, creating profound changes in the world as a result. The family donated millions to international relief agencies during World War I. And when Albert Einstein requested a grant from the foundation of $500 when he was still a virtual unknown, Rockefeller wrote, “Let’s give him $1,000. He may be onto something.”

“My mother and father raised but one question: Is it right, is it duty? I took responsibility early, and, like my parents, I was serious.”—John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Rockefeller passed his commitment to service onto his son, John Jr., who had a special interest in supporting historic preservation and land conservation. In 1919, John Jr. donated 11,000 acres of land on Mount Desert Island in Maine for what would ultimately become Acadia National Park. Seven years later, he began funding the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Even after the stock market crashed in 1929, and the Rockefeller family saw half its fortune wiped out, John Jr. made sure the family commitment to giving continued. He launched construction of New York City’s Rockefeller Center in the midst of the Great Depression in 1931, putting some 75,000 people back to work over the course of the eight-year construction process.

In the midst of construction, his father died at age 97. But John Jr. persisted in the family work, helping provide the funding for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, donating acreage for what would become Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and donating land in New York City for the construction of the United Nations headquarters.

“Being a millionaire is a tough row to hoe.” —Winthrop Rockefeller

Winthrop Rockefeller, one of John Jr.’s five sons, felt an enormous moral and social responsibility as a man of wealth—and an heir to the Rockefeller philanthropic legacy—in distributing that wealth for good. All six of John Jr.’s children were taught the values of saving and giving, just as their grandfather had been. As children, in fact, they were required to use two-thirds of their allowances to save and give to charity.

Winthrop took the family mantra of giving back to deeply personal levels, moving to Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the nation, in 1952. He became governor in 1966, and during his two terms of office, he supplemented salaries of state officials out of his own pocket in order to attract greater talent into government. He helped draw some 600 new industries to the state, providing employment for about 90,000 people.

Meanwhile, Winthrop’s brother Nelson served four terms as governor of New York and even served as vice president under President Gerald Ford.

“I was trained from the beginning to work, to save, and to give.” —John D. Rockefeller Jr.

In the last 20 years, the Rockefeller Foundation has continued to support the family vision. In 2001, it started funding the Living Cities project, designed to develop underserved inner city neighborhoods, and in 2006, the foundation gave some $3.5 million to support rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The Rockefeller family continues to create a lasting legacy of giving. As Winthrop wrote to his young son, “We had the responsibility to see that these resources were used wisely in the service of our fellow man.”

Deborah Huso is a Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in business, lifestyle, and travel subjects. She is also a regular book reviewer for SUCCESS. Her publication credits include FamilyFun, Military Officer, Appraiser News Online, Women's Health,, USA Today magazines, Alaska Airlines Magazine, WellBella, and The Progressive Farmer, where she serves as contributing editor. Huso also publishes a popular blog on love, motherhood, and work called "I Only Love You Because I Have To" at Visit Huso online at, or follow her on Twitter @writewellmedia.