Harry Earhart

  • Hometown: Ann Arbor, Mich.
  • Sex: Male
  • Alma Mater: No college
  • Religion: Unknown
  • Era: 20th Century
  • Source of Fortune:
    • Oil
  • Philanthropic Focus:
    • Free Enterprise
    • Higher Education

Harry Boyd Earhart made his fortune as a manufacturer of lubricating oils, and used that fortune to support some of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century through his philanthropy. He established two foundations, Earhart and Relm, to support free-market and American ideals. He also exercised bold leadership in restructuring his board, thereby ensuring that his work would continue after his death, and providing a model for organizing philanthropic entities to safeguard donor intent.

Earhart was born in 1870, one of eleven children, the son of a respected local businessman (and the first cousin, once removed, of pilot Amelia Earhart). Earhart started several businesses, including stints brokering cargo and designing logging machinery. But his greatest success came from the lubricant industry. He took a job with the White Star Refining Company, a struggling oil company based in Buffalo, New York. In 1909, he was sent to Detroit as the company’s sales agent.

Earhart saw the opportunity. With the automobile industry about to take off, he bought White Star and moved the company to Detroit. Thirsty for lubricants, auto manufacturers soon made White Star a thriving business. Under Earhart’s leadership, the company operated its own refineries and sold petroleum products throughout the Midwest and into Canada, becoming one of the largest oil refining companies in the region. In 1930, Earhart sold White Star to the Vacuum Oil Company (a company later acquired by Mobil); he retired shortly thereafter. The White Star logo earned a good reputation, and would remain on Mobil gas station signs and maps until after well after World War II.

Earhart and his wife, Carrie, settled into retirement in Ann Arbor and began to devote their full attention to philanthropy. They founded Earhart Foundation (without any “the”) in 1929, with a focus on various charitable and religious causes. It was a fairly conventional family foundation, with their children included on the board. In short order, Earhart broadened its mandate to include research intended to eliminate, rather than alleviate, social ills.

As time passed, however, Earhart became concerned about the structure and future of his foundation. He saw increasing threats to free enterprise and traditional American values. Though he tried to get his children to see the urgency of promoting free market ideals, he met with little success.

In 1949, Earhart moved boldly to refocus the work of his foundation—and ensure that it would continue long after him. He asked all of his children to step down from the board. He appointed a new and independent board to oversee Earhart Foundation, and then established a second board made up of family members who shared his vision. The purpose of the second board was to elect trustees to the operating board, and to see to it that the trustees of the operating board remained true to the founder’s vision. It is one of the first known instances in which a donor reconfigured his board to ensure future compliance with his intent.

At the same time, the Earhart Foundation instituted a new strategy to influence ideas and scholarship. It would restrict its activities to funding fellowships for individual scholars whose work advanced the principles of a free society. The foundation’s “talent scouts” were to identify promising students, writers, or researchers engaged in the task of showing economic freedom as the essential component of a free society. (In the 1970s, the foundation expanded the fellowship program to include scholars working in the humanities.) Earhart fellowships eventually funded the work of more than 2,500 graduate students.

A year later, Earhart also established the Relm Foundation, which funded institutions devoted to furthering economic freedom, like the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs, and the Mont Pelerin Society. It also supported individual scholars like Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Peter Bauer. Relm was given a limited life, however, of 20 years, and in 1977, the foundation was closed and all of its remaining assets went to Earhart Foundation.

The Earhart Foundation had a peerless track record for identifying talented, influential scholars. Nine winners of the Nobel Prize in economics were Earhart fellows earlier in their careers. Among those who received support in the foundation’s early years were Friedrich A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. Other Nobel-winning economists who benefited from Earhart funding include Gary Becker, James M. Buchanan, Ronald Coase, Robert Lucas, Daniel McFadden, Vernon L. Smith, and George Stigler.

Though Harry Earhart died in 1954, his foundation has remained true to his vision by supporting hundreds of individuals and playing a key role supporting freedom. The Earhart Foundation board has decided to spend down its assets and close up by the end of 2015. That decision would likely have pleased Harry Boyd Earhart, who insisted that “giving should serve to strengthen recipients rather than to make them increasingly and perhaps permanently dependent upon help from others.” 

Further reading: