Retired hedge fund titan Robert W. Wilson lost his faith in God years ago, yet he believes in Catholic schools and gave $5.6 million to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York this summer.
It’s the latest of many gifts from Wilson to the city’s Catholic hierarchy and educators, this one aimed at funding the Catholic Alumni Partnership, a program he founded that helps elementary schools track down their 750,000 alumni and recruit them as donors.
“Most of what the Catholic schools teach are the three Rs,” said Wilson, 83, in a phone interview, referring to reading, writing and arithmetic. “And they do it better than the union-controlled inner-city schools.”
Wilson, a Detroit native, said he began questioning the existence of God after enrolling in Amherst College in Massachusetts to study economics.
“Religious people say you couldn’t have our surrounding environment without the Creator, but then who created the Creator?” Wilson said.
He made his fortune as a growth-stock investor at his firm, Wilson Associates, taking $15,000 in 1949 and turning it into $225 million by 1986 when he retired at age 60.
He stopped investing after retirement and entrusted his wealth among a dozen money managers. He then started giving money to conservation causes such as the World Monuments Fund, Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Wilson said he has donated more than $550 million to charity and wants to give away 70 percent of his wealth before he dies.
Wilson began making donations to the New York archdiocese in 1997 with a gift of $10,000, and he continued at that level for several years. Then Susan George, executive director of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, asked him to consider giving more money to the schools. Wilson responded in 2007 with a $22.5 million gift to the archdiocese’s Cardinal’s Scholarship Program. He later saw a need for a better alumni support network.
“I realized that Catholic schools were closing all over the country, and Bill Gates probably didn’t have enough money to save them,” said Wilson. “Every private school I hear of relies on alumni support, whether it’s the Groton School or the universities.”
So Wilson launched CAP in 2008 with a $2.7 million gift and then gave $5.6 million this summer to set up fundraising programs in the schools.
His atheism wasn’t an issue with the archdiocese. Rev. Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, said in an e-mail statement to Bloomberg News that he was “grateful” to Wilson “for his vision” and the archdiocese needs to “enlist broad and sustained support from our alumni to secure the future” of the schools.
‘No Greater Charity’
“With a Catholic education, I can take the poorest kid in the most negative family situation and send him to college,” Edward Cardinal Egan, New York’s archbishop from 2000 to 2009, said in an interview. “For me, there is no greater charity. What Robert Wilson is giving us is hope for what can happen.”
The archdiocese’s staff started the search for donors by turning to alumni records at 303 schools in New York and Connecticut.
CAP also set up a Facebook.com page and asked graduates to register and contribute money. So far, the new alumni outreach effort has raised over $1 million from about 11,000 graduates, George said. About 95 percent of New York Catholic school alumni weren’t supporting the schools they attended, she said.
The new strategy has helped Assumption School, a pre-kindergarten-to-8th-grade school in Peekskill, New York, get more than $3,000 in donations and track down donors using its Facebook.com page, said Jim Lyons, Assumption’s principal.
Wilson’s philanthropy produced an unlikely friendship with Cardinal Egan. Both opera and classical music buffs, they have dined together and discussed an array of topics, including the second movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Egan said. Divine matters and Wilson’s lapsed faith also turn up in their conversations.
“I’ve told him I look forward to the day when you’ll say that you’re not an atheist,” Egan said. “He said, ‘And if you succeed, you’d be out of a job.’”