John Davidson Rockefeller, 1839 - 1937

portrait of John D. Rockefeller
Photo from Rockefeller Archive Center (1885)
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Born: 8 July 1839, Richford, New York
Died: 23 May 1937, The Casements, Ormond Beach, Florida

Rockefeller's father was often away from home, it turned out that he had a second wife and family. The family (John was the second of six) moved several times, Rockefeller graduated from high school at Cleveland. He took a ten-week business course and at sixteen was a bookkeeper for wholesale produce firm. In 1859 he started his own produce company with a partner, then built an oil refinery with five partners in 1863. Two years later he bought out most of his partners and began aggressively expanding, including playing fast and loose with the railroads, cutting prices, and buying up competitors; by 1880 Standard Oil was refining 90% of the petroleum in the US. He established the infamous Standard Oil Trust which was broken up in 1911, leaving Rockefeller with over 25% interest in 34 separate companies, but over the next decade the value of those shares was five times as great. He was the first person to be worth a billion dollars, in today's dollars his worth was five times that of Bill Gates at his peak.

Then he got serious about giving it away. From his first paycheck he always tithed to the Baptist church he attended, but in 1884 he gave the primary funding for Spelman College and his $80 million grant to the University of Chicago turned a small Baptist school into a major institution by the turn of the century. He developed the conditional grant, a system that required the beneficiaries to raise money from a wider public, which in turn meant the public would cooperate and watch over progress. Early in life Rockefeller said his ambitions were to make $100,000 and live to the age of 100. He accomplished the first thousand times over, when he died of arteriosclerosis at his home he was just short of 98 years.

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