Remembering David Rockefeller, Sr.

Written by Kathleen Merrigan, Food Institute Director

I’m on my way to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture this week, in beautiful Tarrytown New York, a 40 minute train ride north from New York City.  It will be my first visit there since David Rockefeller, Sr. passed away six months ago at age 101.  I’ll be thinking of Mr. Rockefeller with great fondness as I make my journey. I’ll also be kicking myself that I didn’t immediately react and send the New York Times a postscript after reading an obituary that failed to make any reference to Mr. Rockefeller’s contributions to food and agriculture.

Yes, Mr. Rockefeller led, as he himself declared, “an interesting life” and the New York Times undoubtedly had to make tough decisions as to what to include in their write-up.  But I expected better.

In 2002, at the age of 87, Mr. Rockefeller published his autobiography Memoirs. I read it as soon as it came out, because, at the time, I was just beginning to work with Chef Dan Barber and Mr. Rockefeller on an innovative plan for the dilapidated old stone barns and vestiges of what was once a thriving farm on the Pocantico Hills Rockefeller family estate. I chuckled when I read this passage, which captured Mr. Rockefeller’s droll humor: “one of the dubious rewards of being a public figure is that the New York Times periodically sends a reporter to update your – as they benignly put it –’biography.’  Literal translation: ‘obituary.'” The problem is that the NYT didn’t keep up with Mr. Rockefeller, who led an active and meaningful life for more than a decade after his book published.

I reread Memoirs this summer. I highly recommend it.  Face it, we’re all intrigued by the lives of the rich and famous, and the book gives all that we crave. But it also provides insight into David Rockefeller’s philosophy on social responsibility. He grandfather, he writes, “defined individualism as the freedom to achieve and the obligation to return something of value to the community that nurtured and sustained him.” His father, we learn, expected David, from the time he was a young boy, to tithe from his allowance. David took this all to heart and became the most significant philanthropist in the family.

 

Mr. Rockefeller’s interest in the natural world was evident early in life. At age seven, he became intrigued by beetles, and throughout his life, he carried a jar with him in search of a new find. As an undergrad at Harvard, he was a volunteer nature instructor for teenagers in South Boston and took them on expeditions to hunt for insects and learn about trees and wildflowers. By the time of his death, he amassed one of the largest beetle collections in the world, 150,000+ specimens, including more than 10,000 species, some of which David himself discovered. (He bequeathed his collection to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology).

No doubt his interest in nature contributed to the vast investments of the various Rockefeller philanthropies in food and agriculture across the globe. Certainly David’s interest in agriculture also sprang, in large part, from his devotion to his wife of 55 years, Peggy McGrath, who co-founded American Farmland Trust in 1980 and spearheaded the purchase of their farm properties where she raised Simmental cattle.

Advisory council for Stone Barns Center with David Rockefeller, circa early 2000s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He said it was in honor of Peggy, who died in 1996, that he would build what has become Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and the award-winning restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I became engaged in this pursuit early on, as Dan Barber reached out to me for help while I was a professor at Tufts University. With my graduate students, we provided input on the meaning of “local” food in the context of the Tarrytown location. I remember holding my son in my arms and my young daughter tugging on my leg when I first visited the property years ago. Situated on a hill, the beauty of the place was evident, but the buildings were essentially rubble. This I thought – as did everyone – will require great vision and big globs of money. I served on the initial advisory committee along with Fred Kirschenmann, Elliot Coleman, Dan, David and Laureen Barber and a few others who joined Mr. Rockefeller and his many family and staff members to devise and execute a plan.

Fast forward 15 years.  If you have a chance to visit today, you will find a spectacular place that showcases what Dan Barber describes as “farm-driven” cuisine (I assign all my students Dan’s marvelous 2014 book, The Third Plate, Field Notes on the Future of Food in which he helps us understand what this means). The relationship between the working farm, its educational programming, and the restaurant is what makes this place truly special. The Board of Directors is chaired by David’s daughter, Peggy Dulany, and David attended most board meetings as can be seen in the 2016 photo I’ve shared. He loved the place and he believed and invested in its mission.  What’s going on in Tarrytown, in those reconstructed old stone barns, I’m pleased to say, is causing us all to think differently about our food. 

2016 Stone Barns Directors’ meeting, David Rockefeller is sitting in the center of our group.   

As I look back over the years, I realize how lucky I’ve been to have the pleasure of Mr. Rockefeller’s company on so many occasions. Perhaps my favorite was the time he invited me to stay at his home. My parents were amazed – Mr. Rockefeller’s home, they exclaimed, and I admit to being a bit intimidated. When I arrived, I was told that Mr. Rockefeller would soon arrive from the city, and indeed he did, by helicopter on the lawn! After exploring the hallways covered by gorgeous art, an experience reminiscent of my college art history days, I proceeded downstairs for cocktails. Lo and behold, Mr. Rockefeller and I both enjoy the same drink; we sat in his living room chatting as he made perfect martinis to quench our thirst. Given my years in politics, I’m accustomed to being around people with power and wealth. Few could compare with Mr. Rockefeller as a listener and charming companion.  

David Rockefeller Sr. was a great man, and a true friend to many of us and the causes we champion.  I sure hope someday someone writes a biography that captures Mr. Rockefeller’s Stone Barns era.