America Online Inc. co-founder James V. Kimsey didn't just say yes when L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, asked him to send experts from a nonprofit organization he runs to help identify human remains.
"I'll do better than that," Kimsey replied. "I'll take them over myself."
He spent four days in a war zone on a gruesome mission, spending more than $150,000 of his own money to fly in DNA experts from the International Commission on Missing Persons to begin identifying Iraqis who were buried in mass graves during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
After meeting with a United Nations envoy, Kimsey visited a mass grave at Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, where exhumations had begun. He directed his staff to remain to set up a model program for DNA analysis.
The Washington area has many philanthropists, but Kimsey brings a distinctive style to his causes. He has the self-confidence of an Internet pioneer and the name-dropping habits of a Washington insider. He likes efforts on a grand scale. (He gave the Kennedy Center $10 million over five years.) Until recent years, he had trouble saying no to a cause. (At one point he served on 54 nonprofit boards.) And the former Army ranger prefers a dash of Rambo with his philanthropy, whether he is roaming the hallways of District schools or negotiating with guerrillas in Colombia.
"I've always been drawn to things people say can't be done," Kimsey said. "That's why there's an AOL."
It's a style that wins praise from those who work with him, although critics sometimes question the effectiveness of Kimsey's unorthodox approach to philanthropy.
Kimsey, 64, has donated about $35 million, mostly to international institutions, the arts and education groups, according to his staff.
"He was a risk-taker in real life, and he's doing that in philanthropy," said Terrence Scanlon, president of the Capital Research Center, a nonprofit think tank that studies philanthropy.
Kimsey, the oldest of three children, grew up in Arlington. His father was a government worker. He went to Gonzaga High School in the District, then transferred to St. John's College High School. He attended Georgetown University for a year before transferring to West Point.
In 1966, in Vietnam, the 26-year-old Capt. Kimsey fell into his first charitable project, designing and building an orphanage for 150 Vietnamese children in honor of a fallen fellow soldier.
Kimsey said he lobbied hard to build it in the small city of Duc Pho, instead of Saigon. "I raised hell -- 'No, no, no you're gonna build it here because this is where [the soldier] was killed,' " he told his superiors. After winning that debate, he said, "they got used to how I operated."
After his Army career, Kimsey built a small empire of bars in Washington, including the Exchange, Bullfeathers and the Madhatter. He got the attention of a West Point friend, venture capitalist Frank Caufield, who was trying to get a troubled company, Control Video Corp., off the ground. Kimsey became chairman of the company and installed Stephen M. Case as chief executive. It became AOL and eventually merged with Time Warner to create the largest media company in the world. At the height of the dot-com boom, Kimsey was worth $1.2 billion.
With money, he said, came access to power.
"I can get anybody to return my phone call -- including this guy -- once," he told visitors to his Pennsylvania Avenue office. Gesturing over his shoulder toward the White House, Kimsey made it clear that "this guy" was President Bush.
Without wealth and success as his calling cards, Kimsey said, "I'd still be the same person, I'd hope, but would I have the same credibility? No."
Kimsey keeps company with society friends like Queen Noor of Jordan and throws lavish parties at his McLean home, built on a breathtaking cliff above the Potomac River.
Getting the ear of power brokers has been the key to Kimsey's success as chairman of Refugees International, said Kenneth H. Bacon, president of the Washington-based group. The organization works to call attention to the plight of refugees and displaced people and raises money to transport food and medical supplies to Sudan, Iraq, Haiti and Afghanistan.
In May, Kimsey hosted a 350-guest dinner at his home honoring U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The fundraiser, held under a tent on Kimsey's tennis court, brought in more than $500,000.
Whatever advantage his money brings, Kimsey said, thoughts of mortality led him to philanthropy.
"It's a conscious understanding that on the day of your demise, the things that are most important are your relationships and whether you made the world a better place," he said. "Those things are the things that matter most, if you want to die contented."
Initially, that desire frayed Kimsey's attention -- he describes himself as like "a good puppy with ADD." An eight-person staff now helps him focus on about a dozen board memberships.
Kimsey's first project was trying to fix the District's troubled school system, for which he expresses equal parts disdain and hope. "The fact that we're not educating 70,000 kids is a crime," he said.
His Kimsey Foundation aids and advises selected charter and public schools in the District. Last year, the foundation donated $41,000 to the KIPP and Maya Angelou charter schools, and $665,000 to scholarship programs, including the District of Columbia College Access Program and the Children's Scholarship Fund. The foundation also sponsored a teacher-training program in technology for public school teachers and funds a leadership program that recruits and trains principals for the public school systems.
Kimsey is no longer involved in the daily operations of the schools foundation, a job handled by his son Mike, although each month he visits a District school to see how it operates and talk with the kids, said Peter A. Kirsch, Kimsey's chief of staff.
Kimsey becomes most animated when he discusses his international adventures.
Kimsey boasts that in 2000 he was one of the two "gringos" to attend what news reports at the time portrayed as a most unusual meeting with Colombian rebel leader Manuel Marulanda in an attempt to broker peace. Impatient that he couldn't bring a stop to a 50-year civil war, Kimsey became so frustrated that he jabbed his finger into the chest of the heavily armed leader, according to Kimsey's friend, Joseph E. Robert Jr. , chairman of McLean-based J.E. Robert Cos., who accompanied him on the trip.
Initially, Kimsey and Robert, another well-known philanthropist, expressed hope for a negotiated peace, but that hope faded. Kimsey said he concluded that the rebels had been hopelessly corrupted by the drug trade. He said he gave Colombia's then-President Andres Pastrana a blunt recommendation on how to handle the rebel chief: "You got to whack him." To illustrate what he meant, Kimsey said he gave the president a copy of the book "The Godfather." "You whack him like this."
That's typical of Kimsey's style, Robert said. "He wants what he wants, when he wants it," Robert said.
Kimsey said he joined the International Commission on Missing Persons at the urging of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and former senator Bob Dole. The organization had spent $15 million from the State Department and other governments with little to show for it, Kimsey said. Infighting in the leadership of the group kept it at a standstill, and it wasn't clear whether the genetic technology the group was using would work, he said.
"I got there and realized what a fine kettle of fish we had here," Kimsey said.
As chairman, he drew on his business experience, looking at each division of the organization and changing it. Kimsey said he broke down each problem into smaller pieces, just as he had done in the AOL days, asking questions until he decided on his course of action. He fired some of the group's employees and revamped the leadership. He brokered meetings with leaders in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia to resolve differences that were preventing the organization from doing its work in those countries. He pushed the group's scientists to stop perfecting its DNA technology and start analyzing the backlog of bodies in the morgue.
Lorne W. Craner, the State Department's assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, said Kimsey's approach helped get the organization on its feet. "He's very no-nonsense, very to the point, and that's what you need to get these things going," he said.
Since Kimsey's arrival, the group said it has identified more than 5,100 of the 16,500 bodies it has collected from mass graves in the Balkans. It has raised $30 million more in government funding over the past four years. It helped identify bodies at the World Trade Center in New York after 9/11.
Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley, acknowledged the organization's successes in the Balkans, but said identifying a vast number of bodies in Iraq will be a painstaking task that can't be launched overnight, Kimsey-style.
"It's better to slow down, allow the security situation to get better, set up an international commission and incorporate local personnel, because they will be doing this for 20 to 30 years," said Stover, who has worked on identifying bodies in mass graves for more than two decades. "It's also a different world than what he's used to in business. You're dealing with a different culture, different attitudes toward death. You can't just swagger in there as a foreigner."
Even some of Kimsey's friends say they take different approaches to philanthropy. Mario Marino, another area philanthropist and veteran technology executive, spent a year and a half studying charitable organizations before creating his own. In contrast with Kimsey's tendency to jump in and reshape organizations, Marino's group tries to help established charities by bolstering their support systems.
"We should never impose our model on anybody," said Marino, who runs Venture Philanthropy Partners in the District. "You've got to take time to earn trust, or you'll never open up and solve their problems."
But Kimsey said he and other business people bring to charitable organizations a special ability to build bridges, or to knock them down when necessary.
"We have a unique position because we have a degree of autonomy and independence," he said. "We can be free radicals."
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.