Making A Difference: Robert Macauley, The $12 Billion Man

Robert Conover Macauley

Robert Conover Macauley

“He was motivated by the belief that if you act quickly you have more impact and save more lives, than if you act slowly.”

by Dave Riley

Forty years ago this month Saigon fell, which is why this week newspapers and networks are running stories about that era.   Here is one you may not have heard. It’s about a fellow named Robert Macauley, whose day job was running a successful paper products company in New York.

In his senior years, he was also an uncommonly effective humanitarian. He served on boards and wrote checks, of course, but more importantly he got things done. “People will always give you nine reasons why it can’t be done,” Mr. Macauley said in a 1990 interview with the Toronto Star. “Just mow ‘em down. Make things happen.”

And that’s exactly what he did in April of 1975 when the fall of Saigon was only days away. At the time the U.S. Air Force had mounted Operation Babylift to bring South Vietnamese orphans to this country for adoption.

But on April 4, the very first flight ended in tragedy when a United States Air Force Lockheed C-5 Galaxy crashed not long after takeoff, killing more than 150. Mr. Macauley, who had for several years supported efforts to help Vietnamaese orphans, read about the tragedy and found out it would take more than a week to fly out the remaining orphans because of lack of aircraft.

That, he realized, might be too late. So he went to Pan Am and chartered a 747 to bring three hundred orphans to this country.

The Macauleys didn’t have the $10,000 for a down payment on the charter, much less the $241,000 for the balance of the cost, but no matter. They took out a mortgage on their home in New Canaan, Connecticut, to pay for the flight. His wife Leila believed it was a fair trade. “The bank got the house and Bob got the kids,” she said.

Robert Conover Macauley was born into a life of privilege. His family owned the M.L. Macauley paper company. He grew up in suburban Connecticut, and his schooling was impeccably eastern upper class: Greenwich Country Day School, Phillips Andover, and Yale University. His roommate at Yale was George H. W. Bush, who would become the 41st president of the United States.

The first hint that Mr. Macauley’s life was not going to the follow the traditional patrician path came just after World War II broke out. In the midst of his education, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving as a lieutenant in North Africa.

His route from birth to humanitarian was not a straight line. After his military service he drifted to Miami and later to Europe, where he played golf and tennis during the day and played the piano at night to support himself. Eventually he returned to Yale and graduated.  After working in the family business for a while, he founded his own company, Virginia Fibre.

In 1968, he heard about Richard Hughes, who operated hostels for war orphans in Vietnam. To support Mr. Hughes’s projects, Mr. Macauley established the Shoeshine Boys Foundation, so named because the orphans in the hostels earned money by shining shoes. The seed money for the foundation, which Mr. Macauley ran out of his New York office, came from funds he had originally set aside to purchase a new automobile.

In 1981, when Mr. Macauley was 58, Pope John Paul II asked him to come to Rome. “Poland was under martial law, and the country had virtually no medical supplies,” Mr. Macauley recalled on the web site of AmeriCares, the nonprofit he founded. “I’m not even Catholic, but when the Pope asks a favor, you comply.” Later he told another interviewer, “I was in awe of him. So I said, ‘Certainly, Your Holiness.’ What else could I say—’No, Pope?'”

He and the Pope agreed upon a goal of $50,000 worth of medical supplies for the people of the Pope’s native Poland.

Mr. Macauley’s particular genius was his ability to secure monetary and in-kind support from corporations and individuals. So when he came back from Rome, he did what he did best: diplomatic arm twisting to secure medical supplies and funds. In all, his efforts resulted not in $50,000 but in more than $3.2 million worth of aid being airlifted to the country.

He was passionate about wanting to help the most vulnerable people on the planet. He describes his mother as a “crusader,” and says, “I was always socially conscious.” In 1982 he founded AmeriCares, a nonprofit disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization which provides immediate response to emergency medical needs – and supports long-term humanitarian assistance programs – for people around the world. Since its founding the organization has provided more than $12 billion in aid to 147 countries. What an extraordinary legacy — to have founded an organization that has provided $12 billion in aid and continues to give every day.

AmeriCares’ largest program, Global Medical Assistance, provides medicines, medical supplies and other relief to hospitals, clinics and community health programs in over 40 countries. In the United States it supplies more than 150 health care clinics serving the uninsured and underinsured in over 35 states and provides free prescription medications in all 50 states through its Patient Assistance Program.

Mr. Macauley was once described as being a person of “unbounded compassion and sheer audacity.” Curtis R. Welling, who succeeded Mr. Macauley as AmeriCares’ CEO, told the New York Times, “He was motivated by the belief that if you act quickly you have more impact and save more lives, than if you act slowly,”

“You act now and worry about the red tape later,” Mr. Macauley once said.

Mr. Macauley served without pay as the chief executive of AmeriCares from its founding until 2002, and was its chairman at the time of his death. He was born in Manhattan but grew up and lived most of his adult life in Connecticut. He died at his residence in West Palm Beach, Florida, on December 29, 2010, with his wife Leila at his side.  He was 87.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.