David M. Rubenstein puts money where his passions are: arts, education, history

By Jacqueline Trescott
Sunday, May 2, 2010

When Duke University was raising money to turn its public policy institute into a stand-alone school, they ran into some financial difficulties.

"It became very challenging," says Richard Brodhead, the president of Duke, recalling how the recession almost brought donations to a halt.

Who stepped up? David M. Rubenstein, Duke class of 1970, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, university trustee and member of the Forbes Top 400. "He said, 'What more do you need?' " Brodhead says. In October, Rubenstein gave $5.75 million and the school met its goal.

That's how Rubenstein operates, whether the need is an educational institution, a last-minute chase of a historical document or Washington students seeking scholarship help. He reaches back into his memory of who helped him as a strapped student, evaluates where he can make an impact and tries to fill the demand.

"I don't have the wealth to make transformation gifts, but around the margins I can help," says Rubenstein, a white-haired man with dark, bushy eyebrows who often speaks with understatement. The Washington financier and co-founder of the Carlyle Group, which has $90 billion in assets committed to its private equity business, ranks No. 123 on Forbes's list of richest Americans. "Around the margins," in his case, means a $2.5 billion personal account.

The business, academic, arts and medical worlds along the East Coast know Rubenstein well and, Monday, so will patrons and followers of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; that's when he'll become the sixth chairman of the venerable arts organization.

"Performing arts tend to unify people. And that has certainly been true of the Kennedy Center. It is a rare, and helpful, unifying force in the city and region," says Rubenstein, who has been a board member since 2004. Sitting in an upscale restaurant in Washington on a recent Sunday, Rubenstein drinks tea, nursing some congestion that seems to have started right after he attended last month's NCAA men's basketball championship game in Indianapolis -- where Duke beat Butler. "I acted appropriately," he says, meaning that he's not of the screaming fan variety, he doesn't drink or smoke, and after the game, he flew back to Washington and went right to the office.

On a mission

He has been on a fired-up mission since he was about 54, six years ago, when he read that a person of his demographic group would likely live to be 81. He began to sort out his philanthropic directions.

"Since my firm was based in Washington and my wife and I raised our kids here, I felt that this was a city that had been very good to my family and me. It deserved a fair amount of what I could now give," Rubenstein says.

The list of his involvements began: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the National Symphony Orchestra.

He has given the Kennedy Center $3.5 million, and he is underwriting its Very Special Arts festival in June. At Lincoln Center, where as a vice chairman he contributed $10 million to its capital campaign, a popular atrium is named for him. At Harvard University, he donated more than $15 million for student financial aid. At Johns Hopkins, he gave $5 million and now the Child Health building bears his name.

The Harvard gift is another example of the largess Rubenstein shows toward struggling students. He wanted students to move between the public and private sectors -- without debt. The gift supports students enrolled in both the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School, and gives tuition and other aid for up to 20 students per year for five years. He's aiming for "new models of cross-sectoral leadership." As the president of the Economic Club of Washington, a forum for government and business leaders, he underwrites another scholarship program for local students.

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