Late in life, Sir John Templeton thought about taking up golf. He wanted the exercise, so he borrowed a set of clubs and played a round. When he was finished, he reflected on the experience and decided that it wasn’t worth the time. “I could have read five investment reports,” he said.
“He felt that time was precious, and he wanted to make the most of what he had,” says his son Jack. With his death on July 8, 2008, Sir John’s time ran out. By most measures, he had an abundance of it: more than 95 years. He made good use of it, too, leaving behind a life in which he made a name as a fearless investor and path-breaking philanthropist.
The John Templeton Foundation, headquartered outside Philadelphia in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, primarily devotes itself to the study of character development, free enterprise, and religion and science. It currently gives out $70 million in annual grants, drawn from an endowment of around $1.5 billion. With the death of its donor, the foundation may see its assets jump by as much as $1 billion, according to Charles Harper, the foundation’s senior executive vice president. Combined with two offshore foundations, the Templeton World Charity Trust and the Templeton Religion Trust, the entire corpus ultimately may be worth more than $4 billion.
John Marks Templeton was born in Winchester, Tennessee, in 1912. His early years were both carefree and full of curiosity, thanks to parents who imposed few restrictions on him. He once said that when he was about eight years old, he wanted to learn how to blow up tree stumps. So he went to the local hardware store and tried to order some dynamite. He had the money for his purchase, but the owner of the store hesitated. It was legal to sell it to the boy, but he wanted to check with his parents first. Was it really okay for this kid to order dynamite? They said sure, let him do it.
Templeton went on to attend Yale University, where he graduated with a degree in economics and a Rhodes Scholarship. Afterwards, he traveled the world on a shoestring budget—an experience which gave him a global perspective that served him well in an investment career that began in 1937. He eventually became known on Wall Street for his aphorisms, including most famously: “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grown on skepticism, mature on optimism, and die on euphoria. The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy, and the time of maximum optimism is the best time to sell.”
At the outbreak of the Second World War—a moment of “maximum pessimism”—he took his own advice. In a transaction that has since become legendary, Templeton identified 104 companies on the New York exchange whose stock was selling at $1 per share or less. (About a third of them were actually bankrupt.) He borrowed money to buy 100 shares in each of them. Only four turned out to be totally worthless. By holding the rest for a few years, he reaped a huge profit.
In 1954, he launched one of the greatest successes in the history of mutual funds: the Templeton Growth Fund. An investment of $10,000 at the time of the fund’s creation would have blossomed into a portfolio worth $2 million in 1992, when the fund was sold. That’s an annualized return of more than 14 percent—an amazing streak for such a long period. Templeton always found opportunities, like Japan in the 1960s, that other investors overlooked.
Around the time Templeton sold his fund, he shifted his focus to philanthropy. His first big splash in grantmaking came in the early 1970s, with the inception of the world’s most lucrative award, the Templeton Prize. The prize rewards spiritual progress and philosophical innovation, much as the Nobel Prizes honor scientific advances and literary accomplishments. The first winner was Mother Teresa, in 1973. Later recipients included Billy Graham, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Chuck Colson, and Michael Novak. The current laureate is Michael Heller, a Polish priest and cosmologist. Earlier this year, he collected an award worth more than $1.6 million.
Templeton was raised Presbyterian and spent many years on the board of the Princeton Theological Seminary, including two terms as its chairman. Yet he took pride in the fact that winners of the Templeton Prize included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. He often spoke of taking a“humble approach” to big questions—a stance reflected in his foundation’s motto: “How little we know, how eager to learn.” He was once asked if the religious faith of his personal life clashed with the acquisitive demands of his business career. Not at all, he insisted. “For one thing,” he said, capitalism “enriches the poor more than any other system humanity has had.”
Just as he had devoted much of his life to increasing the material wealth of ordinary people, Templeton wanted to use his fortune to help increase their spiritual wealth, too. In 2000, he wrote of his desire to “facilitate the discovery of over 100 fold more spiritual information than humankind has ever possessed before.” Although many religious people already believe that their faiths provide plenty of “spiritual information,” Templeton was convinced that there was more to know: “A doctor today would never prescribe treatments my grandfather used in the Confederate Army, but a minister says pretty much the same thing today that a minister would have said back then.”
To that end, the Templeton Foundation has spent millions supporting empirical research into questions like the links between prayer, forgiveness, and personal health. One of its major projects has been the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, which sponsors symposia and research into “the benefits of benevolent love for those who give it and those who receive it.”
If these interests seem peculiar, it is perhaps worth recalling that many investors found Templeton’s financial practices peculiar—and yet they weren’t nearly as effective at making money for themselves or their clients. “People are always asking me where the outlook is good, but that’s the wrong question. The right question is: ‘Where is the outlook most miserable?’” Templeton told Forbes in 1988. If the primary goal of an investor is to buy low and sell high, it might be said that Templeton saw fit, during a secular age, to go with God.
A major challenge for philanthropists everywhere is to measure the impact of their donations, and Templeton recognized that not every one of his foundation’s gifts would change the world. “He often emphasized that, in his 50 years as an investment leader, if two-thirds of the investment decisions one makes are successful, then you will achieve long-range significant investment return,” says his son Jack. “What he emphasized about each non-successful investment, or in later years philanthropic grants that did not succeed, was what you learned from that experience so that you could avoid similar mistakes in the future.”
Templeton lived comfortably but frugally. Even when he had attained enormous wealth, he continued to buy used cars. His last was a Kia. “He thought it was good quality for the money,” says Jack. He asked his staff to save papers that had print on only one side so that they could be flipped over and bound into notebooks, which he would use for his own purposes. His move to the Bahamas and subsequent naturalization as a British citizen has sometimes been described as an effort to dodge taxes, but Templeton claimed there were other reasons. “I’ve found my results for investment clients were far better here than when I had my office in 30 Rockefeller Plaza,” he once said. “When you’re in Manhattan, it’s much more difficult to go opposite the crowd.” Jack believes there were still other motives: “He grew up in a warm climate and never liked the winter. He picked the Bahamas because they were pleasant and because the people are very spiritual. There are lots of churches and the people are religiously engaged.”
From this remote locale, Templeton communicated regularly with his foundation in Pennsylvania—almost always by fax. Sometimes he would send a dozen or more faxes in a single day, either handwritten or dictated and typed. Although technology fascinated him, he never became proficient with a computer. “We once tried to get him to use one,” says Harper, the foundation vice president. “He thought it was really neat for secretaries.”
Learning to do something as simple as using email might have saved Templeton some time, that most precious commodity. Yet it’s hard to see how he could have used the time he had more wisely or more well.
John J. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.