Laurance Rockefeller

Conservationist who put his Rockefeller riches to work
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Laurance Spelman Rockefeller, philanthropist and conservationist: born New York 6 May 1910; married 1934 Mary French (died 1997; one son, three daughters); died NewYork 11 July 2004.

Laurance Rockefeller was the "quiet Rockefeller", for the most part neglected in the hundreds of books about America's most celebrated business dynasty. Yet, thanks to his decades of work as conservationist, philanthropist - and sharp-eyed venture capitalist as well - he may leave a more important legacy than his better-known siblings.

Laurance was one of six grandchildren of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil. His oldest brother, and bearer of the family name, John D. Rockefeller III, took over the family's charitable operations, while another brother, the gregarious Nelson, was Governor of New York and briefly US Vice-President. Winthrop, his younger brother, became Governor of Arkansas. David, now the last surviving member of his family, was a scholar, international financier and chairman of Chase Manhattan bank. Their only sister, Abby, died in 1976.

Brought up relatively frugally despite the enormous wealth which surrounded him, Laurance thought hard and long about how to best use the resources available to him, as a member of what was then the country's richest family.

After studying philosophy at Princeton, he went to Harvard Law School, but soon decided the law was not for him. Nor was the simple security of blue chip investing. Instead he devised his own ways of putting Rockefeller money to work. Over the decades he accordingly used his fortune - estimated at a net $1.5bn by Forbes magazine in 2003 - both to protect America's environment, and nourish infant industries of the future.

Laurance Rockefeller rarely visited the New York Stock Exchange, on which he had inherited a seat. But family lore depicted him as perhaps the most gifted Rockefeller deal-maker since his grandfather. Indubitably, he had a special nose for trends of the future, as he helped fund start-up technology companies which would become part of America's corporate landscape.

As early as the 1930s, for instance, he became convinced of the huge possibilities of commercial aviation, and gave financial backing to Eastern Airlines. Eastern turned into the most profitable US airline of the immediate post-war era.

Similar initiatives followed, many of them involving start-up companies researching supersonic travel. In 1969, he re- organised his venture capital operations into Venrock Associates, which put up seed capital for Apple and Intel, two of the foremost computer companies of today. "People who play it safe in the long run have very dull lives," he once said - even though vast wealth made his own risk-taking a less dicey proposition than for most others.

But Rockefeller was probably best known for his environmental work. He served under five US presidents in various capacities related to the outdoors, seeking to realise the conservationist's dream of protecting spectacularly beautiful places, while expanding public access to them.

Many of the most famous parks across the US owe much to a man whom the first President George Bush, awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1991, described as "a hidden national treasure". The Tallman Mountain State Park was the first of them, created from land Rockefeller donated to New York state in 1942 to preserve some lovely landscapes among the lower Hudson river.

Seven years later, he gave the federal government 30,000 acres of stunning mountain country which his father had acquired at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, helping establish the Grand Teton National Park.

In 1956 he made over to the federal government 50,000 acres, or half, of the island of St John, the smallest and most pristine of the US Virgin Islands. From his gift emerged the Virgin Islands National Park.

His talents were soon directly employed by Washington. After founding the American Conservation Association in 1958, Rockefeller was named by President Dwight Eisenhower to head the Outdoor Recreation Review Commission, set up to study the creation of new national parks.

The middle son among five ambitious and talented brothers, Laurance Rockefeller was known within the family for promoting compromise among his siblings - not least between the two most publicly prominent of them, Nelson and David. In the conservationist field, that same gift proved vital in 1968, in creating the Redwood National Park in California, a 58,000-acre expanse established at a cost of $2bn to protect the giant trees coveted by loggers.

At the time he was criticised for not safeguarding a larger area. Today it is accepted that but for Rockefeller's compromise with the state of California, which advocated a far smaller area, there would probably be no Redwood National Park at all.

Rupert Cornwell