Dick Rockefeller once slept on my couch. That's all you need to know to understand that Dr. Richard Rockefeller, an heir to the Rockefeller fortune, wasn't your typical son of great wealth. Tragically, he died on Friday while flying his plane home to Falmouth, ME, after helping celebrate the 99th birthday of his father, David Rockefeller, at the family's estate in Pocantico Hills, just north of New York City.
In Maine, he was a family physician. He had settled there to lead a quieter life outside of the celebrated circles in which he had grown up in New York City. He wanted to be accepted for himself, not for his family. Fortunately, he was a very talented and generous person.
While I had known him somewhat previously, I had gotten to know him after college, when we were both involved with an organization now called the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, which at the time sent volunteers -- typically college students -- to remote coastal villages on the coasts of northern Quebec and Labrador to run summer day camps for children there. The children had otherwise little to do in those months, and the temptation to get into trouble was great. The foundation's activities provided an alternative, engaging them in sports and arts and offering opportunities to learn new skills as well as values like teamwork.
Dick and I had each spent several summers in the same town -- an island community of about 300 people called Harrington Harbour. Our summers didn't overlap -- he was there before I was -- but he was beloved and legendary in the town -- more for playing the bagpipes than for being a Rockefeller. He enjoyed the close personal relationships in this small fishing village, and the fishermen and their families in turn valued him greatly.
In small towns you're judged first and foremost on the kind of person you are, even if being a Rockefeller is intriguing. If you don't pass the first test, being a Rockefeller doesn't matter.
I had gotten to know him when he returned to Harrington Harbour for occasional visits. In a small remote town you can get to know even visitors well.
His need for my couch came soon thereafter when he was interviewing prospective volunteers for the foundation while visiting the University of Virginia, where I was in graduate school. He had called to say that he was in town and to ask if he could sleep on my couch. He didn't seem to want the trip to cost the foundation any more than necessary. As a significant donor to the foundation even then, he may have simply not wanted his money to go to hotel rooms when it could serve the people on the coast.
I suspect that Dick Rockefeller learned much about what he wanted out of life on the coast of Labrador -- to be judged for himself, not for how he was born; to have close personal relationships with neighbors in his chosen community; to find meaningful ways to serve others.
Yet he also understood the value of his name and didn't shy away from using it to benefit others. He was Chairman of the United States advisory board of Doctors Without Borders from 1989 until 2010, and he served on the board of Rockefeller University, which is renowned for its medical breakthroughs. He was also a past president of the Rockefeller Family Fund.
Dick Rockefeller was able to live in two worlds -- as a family physician in Maine and as an influential leader who could advance medicine through world-renowned institutions. He had the best of both worlds, and both worlds had the best of him.
The author is Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International, the New York City-based public relations firm.