By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
John Templeton, 95, a billionaire investor whose lifelong fascination with science, the spiritual realm and their mutual connection to the meaning of life prompted him to establish the Templeton Prize to honor what he called progress in religion, died July 8 of pneumonia at Doctors Hospital in Nassau, Bahamas.
A naturalized British citizen, he was born in small-town Tennessee and lived in Nassau.
Mr. Templeton started his Wall Street career in 1937 and from the beginning took an unconventional approach to investing. He scoured the world for bargains, picked against common wisdom and was an early postwar investor in then-obscure Japanese companies such as Hitachi and Fuji.
In 1954, he founded the Templeton Growth Fund, one of the largest and most successful international investment funds in the world. Described by Money magazine in 1999 as "arguably the greatest global stock picker of the century," he sold his combined Templeton funds to the Franklin Group in 1992 for $440 million. At the time of the sale, Templeton funds had assets of $22 billion.
In Mr. Templeton's view, faith and finances -- spirituality and business success -- were intertwined. He always began annual meetings of his mutual fund with a prayer and often noted that an unethical business would inevitably fail, "perhaps not right away, but eventually."
The author or editor of 10 books about spirituality, he established the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1972 as a way of recognizing exemplary achievement in work related to life's spiritual dimension.
He always made sure its monetary award exceeded that of the Nobel Prize, underscoring his contention that advances in the spiritual domain are no less important than those in other areas of human endeavor. The Templeton award is currently worth about $1.6 million.
The annual prize -- the name was changed in 2001 to the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities -- grew out of his belief that an honor equivalent to a Nobel Prize should be given to living innovators in spiritual action and thought.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the first Templeton Prize laureate in 1973. Other winners include the Rev. Billy Graham, exiled Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, physicist Freeman Dyson, philosopher Charles Taylor and Watergate felon turned prison preacher Charles Colson.
Recipients have included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. "I grew up as a Presbyterian," Mr. Templeton told Business Week in 2005. "Presbyterians thought the Methodists were wrong. Catholics thought all Protestants were wrong. The Jews thought the Christians were wrong.
"So, what I'm financing is humility. I want people to realize that you shouldn't think you know it all."
Mr. Templeton, who retained his soft Southern accent and lived in a relatively modest fashion in a white-columned home overlooking the ocean, contributed a sizable portion of his fortune to the John Templeton Foundation, established in 1987.
Foundation grants support academic research in such fields as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science and social sciences related to love, forgiveness, creativity, purpose and the nature and origin of religious belief. With an endowment of approximately $1.5 billion, the foundation gives out $70 million annually.
Although the notion of spiritual progress evoked skepticism, Mr. Templeton insisted that spiritual advances are just as plausible as scientific advances.
"I formed charity foundations," he told the Saturday Evening Post in 2003, "for the main purpose of persuading people that, with the proper scientific research, it's possible to eventually make discoveries of spiritual realities so that, within a century, humans will know a hundred times more about divinity and spiritual principles as any human has known to date."
He was knighted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth in 1987, years after he gave up his American citizenship and settled in the Bahamas -- not, he said, as much for the tax shelter as for the emotional distance it provided from what he described as Wall Street's crowd mentality.
John Marks Templeton was born Nov. 29, 1912, in Winchester, Tenn. As a 12-year-old, he got his initial exposure to the colliding worlds of science and faith by following the Scopes trial as it unfolded in a nearby county. Like many other Americans at the time, the youngster was enthralled by the debate between lawyer Clarence Darrow -- who, in representing schoolteacher John Scopes was also defending Darwin's theories -- and evolution's impassioned foe, William Jennings Bryan.
Mr. Templeton evinced an early fascination with numbers and with celestial bodies he observed through a telescope he set up on the roof of the family home. He also developed a lifelong passion for butterflies -- for spiritual reasons.
"None of us know what's going to happen after we die, any more than that caterpillar knows what's going to happen after he forms a pupa," he told CNN in 1995, "but the caterpillar is born again into something more magnificent than a caterpillar could imagine, and so maybe you will be, too."
He was one of the first from his town to attend college: Yale University. His father was a lawyer and cotton merchant, and when the family was squeezed by the Depression, Mr. Templeton helped pay for his own tuition, books and board with dormitory poker winnings.
He graduated from Yale in 1934 and won a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University, where he received a master's degree in law.
"When I got to Balliol, they asked what I would want to read," he told the Times of London in 2003. "I said business management. They looked at me as if I wanted to study garbage." He studied law instead. Five decades later, he endowed the Oxford Centre for Management Studies, which became Templeton College.
Returning to the United States in 1937, he went to work on Wall Street and three years later bought a small investment advisory firm that became Templeton, Dobbrow & Vance. He focused on investing worldwide.
Taking the "buy low, sell high" maxim to an extreme, he often focused on nations, industries and companies that had hit rock bottom; he called them "points of maximum pessimism."
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, he borrowed money to buy 100 shares each in 104 companies that were selling at $1 per share or less, including 34 companies that were in bankruptcy. Only four turned out to be worthless. He turned slightly more modest profits in the others.
He entered the mutual fund industry in 1954 when he established the Templeton Growth Fund, which was incorporated in Canada as a way to reduce the tax liability of its shareholders. (Canada had no capital gains tax at the time.) It was one of the first global funds to focus on investing in the securities of companies that derived their income from outside the United States.
In 1956, he joined with marketing consultant William Damroth to launch the Nucleonics, Chemistry and Electronics Fund, a specialty fund that reflected his lifelong interest in science and technology. Templeton Damroth went public in 1959.
He sold his stake in Temple Damroth in 1962 and, over the next 25 years, created some of the largest and most successful international investment funds in the world. Each $10,000 investment in the flagship Templeton Growth Fund in 1954, with distributions reinvested, had grown to $2 million in 1999.
Mr. Templeton's first wife, Judith Folk Templeton, died in a motorbike accident in 1951. His second wife, Irene Butler Templeton, died in 1993. A daughter from his first marriage, Anne Templeton Zimmerman, died in 2005.
Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, John M. "Jack" Templeton Jr. of Bryn Mawr, Pa., who retired as a pediatric surgeon in 1995 to become president of the John Templeton Foundation, and Christopher Templeton of Colfax, Iowa; a stepdaughter, Wendy Brooks of Delray Beach, Fla.; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Despite his lifelong fascination with spiritual matters, despite lavishing millions on life's greatest questions, he admitted a few years ago that he had never conquered his fear of death.
"I think it's very rare for a person not to be afraid of death, because we don't know, because it's an uncertainty there," he said in the 1995 CNN interview. "And I try to postpone death as far as I can, but at the same time, I have to recognize that God is a thousand times wiser than I, and probably He has something in store for me that I can't imagine."