by Barrett Seaman
When David Rockefeller died on March 20, his role as surviving patriarch of a famous family, as an international banker and statesman, and as a global philanthropist were widely reported in the national and international media. Less publicized, however, were his relationships with people in the local communities near the Rockefeller family seat at Pocantico Hills. A number of them shared their recollections with The Hudson Independent:
James Ford was Rockefeller’s personal security guard, travel agent and, in his own words, “Jack of all trades.” He had a similar job with Dr. Henry Kissinger, who worked closely with Rockefeller (some say Rockefeller discovered Kissinger at Harvard), and when Rockefeller’s previous aide left in the mid-nineties, Ford took his place. Ford estimates they traveled to 76 or 77 countries together, allowing him to meet with the likes of Nelson Mandela and the King and Queen of Thailand. “Over time, he trusted me with larger and larger projects,” said Ford, including the development of the Stone Barns Center.
Though they were 50 years apart in age, Rockefeller always told Ford that he saw him as a contemporary friend. He was best man at Ford’s wedding to his wife Rebecca. When the Fords had a son, they named him David and asked Rockefeller to be his godfather. Rebecca is Mexican, and the baptism was to be in Mexico, so David Rockefeller flew down in his personal jet, stopping on the way to pick up Ford’s mother.
Paul McGregor was Rockefeller’s personal masseur for 22 years. When Rockefeller broke his leg in Japan in 1995, he underwent surgery and physical therapy at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, where McGregor happened to be doing massage therapy for one of Rockefeller’s doctors. At the time, Rockefeller was impatient to get out to attend a meeting with Nelson Mandela, but doctors said he shouldn’t go—unless he underwent extensive massage therapy first. McGregor worked on him every day for a week—enough to clear him for the trip to see Mandela.
After David Rockefeller’s wife Peggy died, said McGregor, “I think he realized that massage was more than a physical balm; it was an emotional, spiritual balm as well.”
McGregor did massage work on many of Rockefeller’s friends, including the late Brooke Astor, who would always say to him what a good friend David was to her—and which he remained even after she slipped into dementia.
“What stood out was his graciousness, his kindness, his love of people,” said McGregor. “It was in his body language. He’d look at you as if you were his best friend. His smile said everything. He was happy just to be in your company.”
Both Ford and McGregor spoke of Rockefeller’s enduring curiosity. “He loved doing ‘the next thing,’” said McGregor. “Even as he aged,” says Ford, “he was always curious. He didn’t want to stop learning things”. Every trip they took would include a visit to a museum or other site where he could learn something new.
Jill Isenbarger, CEO, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, recalled Rockefeller as “an amazing man and a beloved friend to many of us here at Stone Barns Center. Over a decade ago, he co-founded the farm and nonprofit organization with his daughter, Peggy Dulany, and her siblings on land that had been in their family for more than a century.” Stone Barns is now “a vibrant campus for educating young farmers, students, teachers, chefs and other change makers dedicated to building a healthier food future.’
“Mr. Rockefeller loved the farm and mission of Stone Barns Center,” said Isenbaeger. “and he was proud of our work to steward the land and promote a better food system across the country.”
Always appreciative of those around him, Rockefeller gave generously from a fund established specifically to support local activities in the communities where he lived. Whether it was a truck for the fire department in Mount Desert Island, Maine, or the clock in Sleepy Hollow, or, through his extended family, the new Crossed Paws animal shelter in Elmsford. “One of the wings of our kennels was really run down,” said Julie Potter of the new facility. “These wonderful people enabled us to convert one section of the wing immediately into an amazing room that allows us to have, not only doggie playgroups and training session, but also educational projects, community programming, and all kinds of great social events.” Clare Pierson, Rockefeller’s grandniece and President of The Friends of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, recalled how her great uncle “spent much of his last years here, in Pocantico Hills, on the carriage roads his father and grandfather laid out and his father built. His presence along the roads in his fine carriages was always met with gratitude for all he had done for this part of lower Westchester County. Best get out of the way of his carriage too!” Said Paul McGregor, in words anyone of those who knew him might have said: “I was absolutely blessed to have known him.”