An Appreciation: Robert Macauley, 1923-2010

“Some men see things as they are and ask why — I dream things that never were and say why not.”  — George Bernard Shaw

By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

Robert Macauley

When Robert Conover Macauley came into the world, it was to a life of privilege. He was born in Manhattan in 1923 into a family that 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 abandoned Yale and enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving as a lieutenant in North Africa. After his military service, he went back to Yale and in 1945 earned a degree in political science. Not surprisingly, he went to work for the family’s paper company.  After a successful career there, in 1972 he founded Virginia Fibre, which made corrugated box paper.  He served as the company’s chairman until 1990.

What makes Mr. Macauley’s life remarkable, however, isn’t his corporate accomplishments but his parallel career as a humanitarian.  In 1968, he heard about Richard Hughes, who operated hostels for war orphans in Vietnam. To support Mr. Hughes’s projects, he 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.

Over the years, 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,” he said in a 1990 interview with the Toronto Star. “Just mow ‘em down.  Make things happen.”

Which is exactly what he did in the spring 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.  When Mr. Macauley found out it would take more than a week to fly out the remaining orphans because of lack of aircraft, he went to Pan Am and chartered a 747 which succeeded in bringing 300 orphans to this country. 

Mr. Macauley didn’t have the $10,000 for a down payment on the charter, much less the $241,000 for the balance of the cost, so he and his wife 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.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II asked Mr. Macauley 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.” 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.  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 $10 billion — that’s billion with a b — in aid to 147 countries.

AmeriCares’ largest program, Global Medical Assistance, provides medicines, medical supplies and other relief on an ongoing basis 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 grew up and lived most of his adult life in Connecticut. He died at his residence in West Palm Beach, Florida, on December 29 with his wife Leila at his side.

 Photo: AmeriCares

One Response to “An Appreciation: Robert Macauley, 1923-2010”

  1. admin says:

    Great story of leading by example.