Tending the House that Dodge Built
As the scion of a great charitable family, William "Bill" Dodge Rueckert takes his obligations seriously -- especially his connection to Teachers College
By Joe Levine
When Bill Rueckert was just out of college, his family held reunions at Greyston, the house in Riverdale that was then Teachers College’s conference center. Rueckert’s great-great aunt, TC founder Grace Dodge, had once owned Greyston, and Rueckert – who today co-chairs TC’s Board – spent many happy hours there with his maternal grandfather, Cleveland E. Dodge (Grace’s nephew and heir, and himself a TC board member for 67 years).
“When my grandparents were in their seventies, they gave the College the house and built a smaller one next door. So, here was this place where my family had lived for generations, where my mother was born and I’d played as a kid, and now it had drinking fountains, exit signs and bathrooms equipped for the handicapped.” Rueckert, tall and still boyish-looking at 60, grins. “It was strange to stay there, but the College was always very kind to let us use it.”
Given his bloodline and current role, Rueckert could be forgiven if, deep down, he viewed TC as his college. Instead, as the scion of one of the nation’s great business and philanthropic clans, he approaches his obligations much as he did his adult visits to Greyston: as an appreciative guest who straightens up before he goes.
“Bill brings no ego to what he does – he leads by actions rather than words,” says Chairman of Delta Private Equity and former TC Board Chair Patricia Cloherty, who first recruited Rueckert to become a TC trustee. “He takes the time to learn, which is essential in investing. As a result he does everything, from raising money to contributing fresh ideas, with grace.”
Five years ago, Rueckert, who has managed a series of private investment firms, was approached by friends on the board of Novogen, an Australian biotech startup. The company was developing a promising anti-cancer drug derived from a molecule in green vegetables, but the founder (the scientist who had developed the drug) lacked business expertise. Would Rueckert help put things on a firmer footing?
Over the next two years, Rueckert became Chairman of Novogen’s board, flew monthly to Sydney, fielded phone calls at all hours, completely restructured both the board and management team, and spun off the promising compound and other assets into a new company based in San Diego. He also refocused Novogen on drug discovery, brought back the founder and this past fall, without fanfare, resigned.
“I’ve had great role models in my for-profit work,” Rueckert says, explaining why he turned his life upside down for what was essentially a rescue job. “Their philosophy was that you don’t make passive investments. If you add capital to a venture, you get directly involved in management and governance. That’s been the thread of my career.”
Not all Rueckert’s ventures have succeeded – but some that haven’t say even more about his motivations. About 10 years ago, friends in the resort business asked him to help Connecticut’s Eastern Pequot tribe build a casino. The tribe is related to the Mashantucket Pequot, who run the Foxwood’s resort. For five years, Rueckert attended every tribal council meeting and absorbed the tribe’s history and culture. The work was essential to convincing the Bureau of Indian Affairs to “federally recognize” the Eastern Pequot as an indigenous people (ultimately it did not), but Rueckert was thinking about more than the project’s deliverables.
“From my office window, I can see a monument commemorating the Great Swamp Fight, which concluded with the massacre of most of the Pequot,” says Rueckert, who lives and works in Southport, Connecticut. “The tribe has since lived on a rocky piece of property that’s useless for farming. So, I viewed our project as an effort to help these people, who are trying to scratch out a livelihood, recover their heritage and secure their future.”
Rueckert is equally passionate about his trusteeships with TC, the YMCA of Greater New York, International House and Wave Hill. But the heart of his philanthropic work is his leadership of the Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation (founded by and named for Grace’s brother).
“As a young man, I was fortunate to be close to my grandfather,” says Rueckert, speaking now of Cleveland E., the 67-year TC board member. “He was 60 years older, but we related almost as contemporaries. I saw the time he dedicated to nonprofits and the pleasure he got from it. I feel, as he did, that we’re placeholders – each generation represents our family. My own kids” – Rueckert and his wife, Fleur, have three, including a son named (what else?) Cleveland Dodge Rueckert – “are very aware of the family tradition. They’ve been to many events at TC and elsewhere. So, I take all of that very seriously.”
At the foundation’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan, Rueckert offers up a fascinating mix of family and social history, beginning with the marriage in 1829 of William E. Dodge – “merchant prince,” abolitionist, Native American rights activist (and future Congressman, National Temperance Society president and YMCA founder) – and Melissa Phelps, daughter of the industrialist Anson Green Phelps.
“That’s them, right behind you.” Rueckert, who tends to speak of his forebears as if they were still quite present, gestures with a twinkle in his eye at two of the portraits lining the conference room walls.
Out of that match came Phelps-Dodge Corporation, the giant mining concern that Dodge and his father-in-law founded in 1834 – and, in time, an impact that extended far beyond commerce.
“After the Civil War, when the country was rebuilding and healing and great fortunes were being made, the modern-day tradition of philanthropy in America began to grow,” Rueckert says. “Before then, philanthropy was private and personal, but now it focused on building big, public institutions that were initially funded and run by very generous people. Not that philanthropy today is driven by the tax code, but back then, people’s only motive really was the public good. There were no tax advantages – if you gave away a dollar, it cost a dollar.”
As much as the Dodges contributed to this outpouring, it is the Rockefellers who loom largest in Rueckert’s estimation.
“The things they did with one of the world’s great fortunes are truly amazing. They should be a great inspiration to us today,” he says. “This is a time of great wealth building, too, and we’ve seen another wave of tremendous philanthropy, but none as generous or sustained as the Rockefellers’.”
Phelps-Dodge passed out of family control during the 1970s, but the Dodges’ philanthropic presence, spearheaded by Rueckert, continues. Twelve of the 13 board members of the Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation are Rueckert’s blood relatives. The Foundation holds annual meetings for descendants of the founder. It also matches charitable gifts made by any descendant of Cleveland H. Dodge.
“It’s tremendously admirable the way Bill understands the need to build on his family’s legacy and the way he incorporates that into his life,” says Jack Hyland, who co-chairs TC’s Board with Rueckert.
Not surprisingly, the Foundation’s primary emphasis is on education, including after-school programs, the Children’s Aid Society, teen community centers run by the YMCA, and colleges in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt.
“Grace Dodge’s motivation in founding the Kitchen Garden Association [the organization that became Teachers College] was to help new immigrant women and under-privileged children, and she believed the long-term solution lay in education,” says Rueckert, who proudly terms himself “a product of New Hampshire public schools.” (He grew up in Hanover and attended the University of New Hampshire, where he majored in Spanish).
During Rueckert’s co-chairmanship with Hyland, the College’s fortunes have risen on every front, from its endowment to its enrollment to its perennial high ranking among peer institutions.
“The Board has become much more dynamic under Bill and Jack,” says Trustee Antonia Grumbach, who co-chaired the Board during the early 1990s. “The governance of nonprofits has become much more onerous and complex. My hat is off to them for their business and philanthropic skills.”
For Rueckert one accomplishment stands out: leading, with Hyland, the committee that chose Susan Fuhrman as President.
“John Rosenwald [TC Trustee and Chair of the Board’s Committee on Development] says the only real job of any board is to pick the CEO. I don’t completely agree with him, but it is definitely gratifying to find a leader who lives up to every aspect of what you were seeking,” he says. “Susan’s not only a great scholar, she’s also an incredibly good executive who’s brought together a superb leadership team, delegates to them with great confidence and gets involved with the details when she needs to.”
Rueckert believes TC’s focus on shaping “the century of the learner” is exactly right.
“Everything the College does, from our work on educational equity to producing the best-prepared teachers, flows from our research,” he says. “That’s the unique advantage we’ve had from the beginning.”
Certainly it’s one of them. The other is spelled D-O-D-G-E.
Published Thursday, Jun. 27, 2013