Frederick Taylor Gates, farsighted philanthopist

October 25, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

John D. Rockefeller had already been asked — several times — if he would make a contribution to begin a great Baptist university in the Midwest, and he had declined. But he had never been asked by Frederick Taylor Gates.

It was a spring morning in 1889 when Gates met with Rockefeller at the magnate’s home in New York City. Gates was the executive director of the American Baptist Educational Society. It’s main purpose was to raise money for the establishment of a Baptist university in the Midwest. Rockefeller was a Baptist, and he was a natural target for these efforts.

Gates had been born in Maine, New York, the son of a Baptist minister, and he too had attended seminary and had served as a Baptist minister in Minneapolis. But the year before meeting with Rockefeller, Gates had left the pulpit to help the American Baptist Educational Society. Thus the meeting with Rockefeller.

After a pleasant breakfast, he and Rockefeller strolled up and down Fifth Avenue discussing the society’s plans. Rockefeller offered $400,000.

“That’s not enough,” Gates said politely. A sum of $600,00 would be more in line with what was needed. Rockefeller resisted. Gates persisted. Finally, Rockefeller gave in.

It was, Gates said later, a “thrill I shall never forget.”

The school would be built, and we know it today as the University of Chicago.

Rockefeller may not have been all that thrilled, but he like Gates and recognized his talents. This was a man Rockefeller wanted on his side. Rockefeller hired Gates to be his business and philanthropic adviser, and for the next three decades, Gates had enormous influence over the distribution of Rockefeller vast fortune.

Rockefeller himself believed in folk remedies for many medical problems, but Gates convinced him that his money could do the most good for the greatest number of people if he would invest in researching diseases, identifying their causes, and finding way to eradicate them. Thus, he designed the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University), of which he was board president.

Gates sought to solve specific problems but also looked for ways to apply or link these solutions to larger problems.

The name of Frederick Taylor Gates has receded into the woodwork of history, but we should bring it out occasionally and hold it up as a man who worked vigorously for the public good.

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