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Laurance Spelman Rockefeller (May 26, 1910 - July 11, 2004) was a venture capitalist, financier, philanthropist, a major conservationist and a prominent third-generation member of the Rockefeller family. He was the fourth child of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and brother to John D. III, Nelson, Winthrop and David.
Rockefeller was born in New York City and graduated from Princeton in 1932. He then attended Harvard Law School for two years until he came to the conclusion that he did not want to be a lawyer.
Laurance married Mary French in 1934. A friendship between Mary French's mother, Mary Montague French, and Laurance Rockefeller's mother allowed for a childhood friendship. When Nelson Rockefeller attended Dartmouth College, he shared a room with Mary's brother. Mary was granddaughter to Fredrick Billings, a president of Northern Pacific Railway.
Laurance and Mary had three daughters and a son. They are Laura R. Chasin, Marion R. Weber, Dr. Lucy R. Waletzky, and Larry Rockefeller. In 2004, he had eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1997.
In 1937 he inherited his grandfather's seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He served as founding trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for forty-two years, from its inception in 1940 to 1982; during this time he also served as president (1958-1968) and later its chairman (1968-1980) for twenty-two years, longer than any other leader in the Fund's history. He was also a founding trustee of the Rockefeller Family Fund from 1967 to 1977.
He was a leading figure in the pioneering field of venture capital, which began as a joint partnership with all five brothers and their only sister, Babs, in 1946. In 1969 this became the successful Venrock Associates, which provided important early funding for Intel and Apple Computer, amongst many other start-up technology companies, including many other firms involved in healthcare. Over the years his investment interests ranged also into the fields of aerospace, electronics, high temperature physics, composite materials, optics, lasers, data processing, thermionics, instrumentation and nuclear power.
Venrock was a limited partnership investment company financed by members of the Rockefeller family and a number of the institutions with which the family had longstanding philanthropic ties, among them the Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Rockefeller's major interest was in aviation; after the War, he became friendly with Captain Rickenbacker, who had triumphed in many dogfights over Europe. Rockefeller had himself learned to fly, and he found Captain Rickenbacker's vivid accounts of an approaching boom in commercial air travel to be persuasive. Within a decade after his considerable investment, Eastern Airlines had become the most profitable airline to emerge after World War II and he became its largest shareholder. He also funded the pivotal post-WWII military contractor McDonnell Aircraft Corp.
Rockefeller was a longtime friend and associate of DeWitt Wallace, the co-founder along with his wife of Reader's Digest, in 1922. Wallace, who was a major funder of the family's Colonial Williamsburg, appointed Laurance as an outside director in the company, in order to ensure that it preserved its patriotic mission of informing and educating the public, along with its fervent support for national parks, one of Rockefeller's primary interests.
Through his resort management company, Rockresorts, Inc., Rockefeller opened environmentally focused hotels at Caneel Bay on Saint John, United States Virgin Islands (1956) (a favorite resort today for celebrities), some property of which was later turned over to the Virgin Islands National Park; in Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, and Hawaii, contributing to the movement now known as eco-tourism. The last of these, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, was established in 1965 on the Kohala Coast of the island of Hawaii.
He funded the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center at a critical juncture of its early development. He also funded William Irwin Thompson's Lindisfarne Association, a think tank and retreat. He had a major involvement in the New York Zoological Society, along with support from other family members and philanthropies; he was a long-time trustee (1935- 1986), president (1969-1971) and chairman (1971-1985).
Rockefeller had a strong interest in the latter stages of his life in UFOs. In 1993, along with his niece, Anne Bartley, the step-daughter of Winthrop Rockefeller and the then president of the Rockefeller Family Fund, he established the UFO Disclosure Initiative to the Clinton White House, whose main request was that all UFO information held by the government, including from the CIA and the US Air Force, be declassified and released to the public. The first and most important test case where declassification had to apply, according to Laurance, was the Roswell UFO incident; this eventuated in an Air Force Report in September, 1994 which categorically denied the incident was UFO-related. Laurance subsequently briefed Clinton on the results of his initiative in 1995. Clinton did produce an Executive Order in late 1994 to force mass declassification of documents in the National Archives, but this did not specifically refer to UFO-related files.
He also had an interest, gained via his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, in Buddhism and Asian cultural affairs. He also became interested in spiritual research and crop circles. He funded the research of Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. John Edward Mack, author of Passport to the Cosmos. He also funded a scientific study about crop circles in the late 1990s, in which scientists concluded that they were possibly dealing with an unknown energy source, as their research into a small number of them left them baffled.
He was noted for his involvement in conservation (Lady Bird Johnson in 1967 was to label him "America's leading conservationist") and the protection of wildlife and was chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. He served on dozens of federal, state and local commissions and advised every president since Eisenhower on issues involving recreation, wilderness preservation and ecology. He founded the American Conservation Association and supported many other environmental groups.
He funded the expansion of Grand Teton National Park and was instrumental in establishing and enlarging national parks in Wyoming, California, the Virgin Islands, Vermont, Maine and Hawaii. In his home state, New York, he expended further cash and influence to help establish parklands and urban open spaces. There, as an active member of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, he helped create a chain of parks that blocked the advance of urban sprawl.
In September, 1991, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for contributions to conservation and historic preservation. Awarded by President George H.W. Bush, it was the first time in the Medal's history (since 1777) that it had been awarded for outdoor issues, effectively naming Laurance as "Mr Conservation", who more than any other American had put this issue on the public agenda. Rockefeller said at the award presentation that nothing was more important to him than "the creation of a conservation ethic in America".
In 1992 Laurance and his wife Mary donated their Woodstock, Vermont summer home and farm to the National Park Service, eventually creating a museum dedicated to the history of conservation, now called the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. Again, in 2001, Laurance transferred ownership of his landmark 1106 acre (4.5 km˛) JY Ranch to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which was accepted by Vice-President Dick Cheney on behalf of the Federal Government .
He died in his sleep of pulmonary fibrosis on July 11, 2004.
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