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The Duty-Free Shops, which Chuck Feeney planted at every airport to the delight of travelers, made him his fortune - and eventually funded The Atlantic Philanthropies

Rich man, poor man, happy man

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The Duty-Free Shops, which Chuck Feeney planted at every airport to the delight of travelers, made him his fortune - and eventually funded The Atlantic Philanthropies

Chuck Feeney was once one of the word's richest men.

Now he’s broke.

And he couldn’t be happier.

He wants to make sure his check to the undertaker bounces. He says any man, no matter how rich, can wear only one pair of shoes at a time. He believes those who have lost most in this financial crisis would never have lost as much if they had given it away to begin with.

Welcome to the world of Chuck Feeney, once one of the world’s richest men who is determined to die one of the poorest. In the process, he has become one of the worlds' greatest philanthropists. Not bad for a raggedy trousered kid from the hard streets of Elizabeth, N.J.

He’s reclusive and elusive, but sitting with him one morning this week in a coffee shop on Third Avenue, he’s just an ordinary soul, a man determined to keep his life as normal as possible and to keep his head while all around are losing theirs.

His foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, will have given away about $4 billion dollars by the time it spends itself out of existence. Chuck hopes that will be soon, that he lives to see it. "Giving while living" is his mantra.

He has given well over a billion dollars to Ireland, changed the face of higher education there, single-handedly built the University of Limerick, a major linchpin of that city and regions’ economy.

But there are no buildings named after him.

He played a major role in the peace in Northern Ireland, was one of a group of Irish-Americans who went early and convinced Sinn Fein that America, under a new president Bill Clinton, was prepared to get involved.  Then, when Sinn Fein went political he personally underwrote their office in America for several years to ensure they had the American presence they needed.

He’s been a trailblazer in other fields, too Long before Warren Buffett and Bill Gates decided to give most of it away while still alive, Chuck Feeney had made that decision. He is quietly very proud he beat them to that.

I’ve known him now for about 20 years. We met first in a dingy coffee shop and he made me foot the bill. He loved my magazine Irish America and wanted to find out all about it - as long as I paid for breakfast.

At  76, he’s slowed down, walks with a limp, but the mind and eyes are as sharp as ever. He skewers the super-rich who live only to accumulate, but die like everyone else despite their best efforts.

“No pockets in a shroud,” he says.

Ironically, our conversation is taking place in a coffee shop next door to a major Donald Trump building. Trump would be everything Feeney is not, except Feeney was once a hell of a lot richer - and has had consistently more hair. Real hair.

He was once named Forbes 23d richest man in the world. He was shocked and appalled. I told him about it because I had picked up a copy of Forbes and he hadn’t seen it. It was the only time I have ever heard him speechless.

As founder of Duty Free Shops, he had amassed a grand fortune of four or five billion dollars and immediately set about giving it away.  At the time Forbes finally caught up with him, that was well underway. He was disgusted to make their lists but proud that they noted he sometimes used safety pins to keep his pants hitched.

Yes, he’s cheap. We talked about a well-known Dublin hotel. He likes it. Why? Because  “I go in there every Sunday morning to pick up the newspapers for free.” Once, when I stayed with him in Connecticut, we walked about four miles along old railroad tracks into town. He wanted to visit the public library and stock up on their free discarded magazines.

His frugality is legendary, but his philanthropy is awesome.  The New York Times reported last week that he had just given the biggest philanthropic gift in America this year to a new and badly needed hospital in San Francisco.

I’ve always suspected he is giving it all away because he’s too Irish, too troubled by conscience to keep it. He’s the kid from New Jersey who made it big but wants everyone to believe he still has the street cred back in Elizabeth

The way he copes with his wealth is to never remove himself from his working-class persona. He keeps grounded by acting like it hasn’t happened to him – like basically he is still the same North Jersey guy who went through Cornell by selling sandwiches, and somehow made it all happen from there.

He packed all his Jersey friends on a plane a few years back and brought them all to Ireland on a junket. There was Pat the priest and Bill the plumber and Mary, who he once fancied, and she, of course, wished she’d married him - and lots of others.  Some rich folks jet off to the Riviera, Chuck prefers his buddies and rainy days sitting around a hotel lobby in Ireland talking of old times.

As for today’s troubled times, he knows several friends who fell for Bernie Madoff. He warned them about him. “I looked at his numbers, they were impossible,” he said. “There’s no magic in making money, no secret formula just common sense. People let greed get in the way.”

He’s happy his foundation suffered losses that were far less than most others in the downturn. He still has so much to give away.

We share a taxi to his office. I’m paying - as I did for breakfast. He’s meeting a major cancer specialist, determined to press on to find a cure.

Dreaming the impossible is nothing new to Chuck Feeney.

Neither is making it happen.

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