William E. Simon was a successful banker, public servant, and noted philanthropist. A star bond trader, he served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon and Ford administrations, became a pioneer of leveraged buyouts, and led the U.S. Olympic Committee during the 1984 summer games. He gave generously of his own wealth and became a trustee of some of America’s most influential philanthropic organizations.
Born in New Jersey in 1927, Simon volunteered for the Army and served as a private. After he was discharged, he attended Lafayette College. When graduation approached, Simon was married and in debt, with one young son and another on the way. He camped out in the offices of Union Securities on Wall Street until he landed a $75 per week job in the mailroom. Within a few years he made partner and was heading the firm’s municipal-bonds trading desk.
He moved to Salomon Brothers, where he became famous for his 16-hour days, standing beside his desk, guzzling gallons of ice water, and barking orders to his traders. By 1973, when he left for the Treasury Department, he was a member of the firm’s executive committee and sat on the board that oversaw federal mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
After his government service, Simon returned to private life to find himself nearly bankrupt. Inflation and losses in his blind trust had eviscerated his net worth. He quickly rebuilt his fortune through a series of leveraged buyout deals, founding Wesray Capital Corporation with Ray Chambers. Most famously, the partners purchased Gibson Greeting Cards for $80 million (all but $1 million of which they borrowed). They revitalized it, and took it public again for $290 million. In later years, Simon turned his attention to building a Pacific Rim merchant banking house with his sons, Bill and Peter.
From 1980 to 1984, Simon was president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, leading the 1984 summer games to profitability for the first time since 1932. Simon used the profits to create the U.S. Olympic Foundation, which provided funds to support the athletes’ training.
Simon could be charming, but he was also—in the admiring words of Ed Feulner, former head of the Heritage Foundation—a “mean, nasty, tough bond trader who took no BS from anyone.” To an interviewer who suggested that Simon didn’t suffer fools gladly, he responded, “Do you?”
But Simon had a softer side. He often took his family to visit the homeless teens at Covenant House, playing games with them and working in the kitchen. Later in life, Simon became a Eucharistic minister in the Catholic Church, taking communion to the sick, lonely, and dying. He required all members of the board of his personal foundation to perform 150 hours per year of hands-on service to the poor.
After Simon left the Ford administration, John Olin asked him to lead his foundation. Under Simon’s direction, Olin funded what Simon called “the counter-intelligentsia,” the scholars and organizations who became the intellectual infrastructure of modern conservatism and libertarianism. Simon also supported a host of academic programs that developed the law and economics movement at top-flight law schools.
Simon’s commitment to Olin’s donor intent was forged out of dismay. He was struck by Henry Ford II’s infamous departure from the board of the Ford Foundation in 1977, and even more by his own experience serving on the board of the MacArthur Foundation. Catherine MacArthur had read his book A Time for Truth and wanted her foundation “to have the same mandate as the John M. Olin Foundation.” But Catherine’s stepson, Rod MacArthur, steered the foundation his own way. New board members were elected and, without any clear mandate in the donors’ incorporating documents, they pursued their own favorite causes—many of which Simon believed would have infuriated the MacArthurs.
Through his own foundation, Simon funded programs supporting free markets, faith, strong families, and one-on-one efforts that build the capacity of the poor to support themselves. The William E. Simon Foundation has continued to give generously in line with these ideals.
Simon died in 2000, and that same year his foundation’s board created the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership to honor his memory. It is awarded annually to a major living donor who has set a high example of “the power of philanthropy to promote positive change.” Intended to honor the principles of personal responsibility, resourcefulness, volunteerism, scholarship, individual freedom, faith in God, and helping people to help themselves, the prize carries a purse of $250,000, which is allotted to a charity chosen by the winner.
Simon’s foundation is now spending itself out of existence. Sunsetting was an easy choice for him, assuring that all of his funds would be applied relatively quickly for maximum effect, while the effort was still guided by people the donor knew and trusted. And Simon had confidence that fresh philanthropic funding and energy would quickly emerge, in tandem with the new wealth generated by America’s free-market system—which produced, in his words, “the greatest prosperity, the highest standards of living, and most important, the greatest individual freedom ever known to man.”