Laurance Rockefeller Dies at 94
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2004; Page B04
Laurance S. Rockefeller, 94, an early leader in venture capitalism who used his family's oil fortune to fund conservation efforts and aviation enterprises, died July 11 at his home in New York City. He had pulmonary fibrosis.
Mr. Rockefeller was a central member of one of the first families of American civic, social, economic and philanthropic life. His grandfather John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil and established the family tradition of giving away millions of dollars.
Laurance Rockefeller, a tall, urbane, business-minded billionaire who operated private planes and PT boats for sport, became known largely for conservation efforts. He amplified the legacy of his father -- who had created major national parks -- by expanding and preserving many of his own, from California to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Robin W. Winks wrote in a biography of Laurance Rockefeller that his service in the late 1950s and early 1960s as chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission provided the path for decades of conservation laws.
Mr. Rockefeller found great favor during Lady Bird Johnson's beautification crusade in the 1960s. In 1967, the first lady called him "America's leading conservationist."
Mr. Rockefeller also was a chief advocate for investing family money in new, often bold enterprises. Particularly fascinated by aviation, he poured money into new projects so they "would not be snuffed out by a merger because of a lack of financing."
With commercial air travel still a gamble in the late 1930s, Mr. Rockefeller gave key financial backing to Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I ace who became chief of Eastern Airlines. Mr. Rockefeller became one of the airline's largest stockholders.
A meeting with J.S. McDonnell Jr., the St. Louis aircraft engineer and designer, led to an infusion of cash that created McDonnell Aircraft Corp., one of the most important military contractors in the aftermath of World War II.
Mr. Rockefeller was a director at McDonnell Aircraft but gradually reduced his role there to help smaller concerns, such as Reaction Motors in New Jersey, which built the Viking Rocket. He invested heavily in firms researching supersonic engineering. And one of his investment partnerships in the late 1960s, Venrock Associates, provided early funding for computer companies Intel and Apple.
"People who try to play it safe in the long run have very dull lives," Mr. Rockefeller told Forbes magazine, which listed his net worth last year at $1.5 billion.
Laurance Spelman Rockefeller, a New York native, was the fourth of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's six children; he was the third son. His siblings were Abby, John D. III, Nelson, Winthrop and David.
Laurance often accompanied his father on trips to the American West, where the elder Rockefeller created Grand Teton and other national parks.
On other adventures, his role was less prominent. In summer 1929, he and Nelson were cooks and dishwashers on a shipboard expedition to Labrador led by Wilfred Grenfell.
After graduating in 1932 with a philosophy degree from Princeton University, Laurance Rockefeller attended Harvard University law school. He then inherited a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, which he rarely if ever visited.
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