Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, believes that if you've done well, you should give back to the public interest.
The 78-year-old Marine Corps veteran stepped down as FedEx's CEO last year, but remains its executive chairman. The billionaire rarely publicizes his and his family's philanthropic donations, but agreed to speak about a recently announced gift to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation that he and the foundation estimate could grow in value to $65 million over time.
“The thing that’s interested me are the institutions and the causes not the naming or the recognition,” Smith told The Associated Press.
The structure of the gift is unusual. Smith, who says he's “the biggest movie mogul nobody’s ever heard of,” financed the production of the film “ Devotion,” which tells the story of two Navy pilots in the Korean War. Jesse Brown, the first Black man to be a pilot in the Navy, and another naval aviator, Tom Hudner, flew together in a mission near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in 1950.
Brown died after landing his damaged plane, despite Hudner’s efforts to rescue him. Hudner returned to North Korea in 2013 in an attempt to locate Brown's remains and Smith and Brown's family continues the search. The film is based on research conducted for a book of the same name.
In December, the foundation announced Smith donated the film's proceeds, in part, to endow a new scholarship fund, the Brown Hudner Navy Scholarship Foundation, for the children of Navy service members pursuing studies in STEM.
Shannon Razsadin, who leads the advocacy organization Military Family Advisory Network, said scholarships help change the future of a whole family. “When you’re struggling with things like food insecurity or figuring out a good place to live, when you’re moving on average every two and a half years, the idea of saving for college can seem really far off,” she said.
Smith’s family has long supported MCSF, giving $1.6 million before this latest gift. While “Devotion” likely hasn't turned a profit from its theatrical release in November, Smith is confident that as it streams, currently on Paramount+, and airs on television, the proceeds will add up.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: How did this donation come about?
A: Everything that I did running FedEx came from my experience in the Marine Corps, not what I learned at Yale. So I always wanted to do something out of a sense of gratitude or a recognition of my shipmates in the Marine Corps.
I’ve been in the film business for a long time and this story of Brown and Hunter just struck a note with me, that these two men, particularly Brown, had never received the recognition that they should have received. And I came up with this idea: That a way to pay my dues to the Marine Corps and do something I thought that was important for the nation was to produce this movie. I was confident that my daughters, Molly and Rachel, who are very accomplished film producers, and in particular (the director) JD Dillard, whose father was a naval aviator, could tell the story.
Q: What do you hope people take away from “Devotion”?
A: No. 1: That Brown in particular was one of the great heroes of the republic and has been largely overlooked. He was to naval aviation and to the military what Jackie Robinson was for baseball.
I just thought it was a story that was so powerful for today’s America, which is so divided and has all of these, I think in most cases, exaggerated racial tropes out there. That this was a story about two men in a very tough business who came together completely by chance. And they judged each other at the end — although they went through some tense periods that the movie doesn’t overlook — as Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, by the content of their character, not ethnicity.
Q: What impact do you hope these scholarships will have?
A: I hope it produces a lot of engineers, and scientists, and mathematicians and people that are doctors and researchers. Our country has a great need for all of those skill sets. We’re deficient in producing them. We’re falling behind other parts of the world in those degrees. So somehow we’ve got to make STEM education and health care education more of a choice for American youngsters, whether they’re born here or not.
Q: Many service members and their families struggle to pay for basics and save for college. Would you support a change in how members of the armed forces are compensated or housed or supported?
A: Being in the military has it’s good points and it has it’s bad points. Of all of the things that these folks have to deal with, providing for their children’s education is among the most stressful and difficult.
Hopefully, the story of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and the Brown Hudner fund might inspire other people in other branches of military to deal exactly with the issue you just asked me about: how can you help the military community the most? Well, it would be to provide for college education for their children.
Q: You’ve been a leader in many fields: in business, in sports. You’ve advised politicians and presidents for 50 years. What do you think it means to contribute to the public good and how philanthropy might play into that?
A: America is the most generous country in the world. It’s amazing the charitable contributions that Americans make every year. Everything from the smallest things to these massive health care initiatives and the Gates Foundation and everything in between. I think if you’ve done well in this country, it’s pretty churlish for you not to at least be willing to give a pretty good portion of that back to the public interest. And all this is in the great tradition of American philanthropy.
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