- Historic Sites
Frederick T. Gates And John D. Rockefeller
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Although few general histories of the United States contain the name of Frederick T. Gates (1853-1929), he had a larger influence on American life than many a general or political leader who receives detailed notice. It is an ironic fact that whenever the name of this wise, careful, idealistic planner is mentioned, someone is sure to say, “Oh, you mean ‘Beta-Million’ Gates?"—a man antipodal in all his traits. In due course the impact of Frederick T. Gates (in association with John D. Rockefeller) upon the fast-changing nation of 1890-1925 will be properly recognized. He offered the highly unusual combination of a man creatively interested in religion and philanthropy, and at the same time extraordinarily shrewd and farsighted in business. Rockefeller in his Random Reminiscences speaks of this combination: “rare business ability, very highly developed and very honorably exercised,” and “a passion to accomplish some great and far-reaching benefits to mankind.” But more remarkable than his business ability or idealistic passion was his gift of imagination, his sense of large unexplored horizons.
Gates’s career falls into three main parts: his early association with the Baptist Church as minister, money-raiser, and chief reorganizer of its educational activities; his adventurous services as guardian and planner of Rockefeller’s investments; and his work as architect of foundations and other philanthropies which, taken as a group, perhaps show more statesman-like prevision than any others in our history.
Rockefeller’s account of his discovery of this extraordinary lieutenant is bare and colorless. “I had been planning to relieve myself of business cares,” he writes. “I was fortunate in making the acquaintance of Mr. Frederick T. Gates, who was then engaged in some work . . . which required him to travel extensively over the country, north, south, east, and west.” Behind these sentences lies a dramatic story. Actually Rockefeller had come to know Gates in the later 1880’s, when the question whether a great Baptist university should be established in New York or in Chicago divided the denomination. Gates, with William Rainey Harper of Yale, Dr. Thomas W. Goodspeed of Morgan Park Theological Seminary, and others, stood for Chicago; Dr. Augustus H. Strong, of the Rochester Theological Seminary, whose son had married Rockefeller’s daughter, stood for New York. Gates had been in the foreground when Rockefeller, in 1889, finally decided to found the new university in Chicago. Meanwhile, Rockefeller and he had been carefully studying each other.
Indeed, Rockefeller never chose an associate without meticulous scrutiny and investigation. Much of his success as an industrial organizer was attributable to the partners he had selected: Henry M. Flagler, John D. Archbold, Oliver H. Payne, and others. Gates tells an interesting story of how, when as a champion of the Western Baptists he was pressing the case for Chicago, Rockefeller had subjected him to something of an ordeal. They had lunched in New York to discuss the proposed university. Rockefeller suggested that as he was about to go to Cleveland, while Gates was returning to Chicago, they take the same train. They did so. Gates, then in his middle thirties, was rather awed by the magnate. He was struck by the neatness and quietness of Rockefeller’s dress, his avoidance of jewelry, his simple solution of the problem of tipping by holding out a handful of change to let porters take what they thought right. He was struck still more by the penetration of Rockefeller’s mind, the ease and simplicity of his speech. “The greatest man I have met,” he reported to his parents. “He is the broadest, clearest-headed, most universal in his sympathies, most calmly self-poised, most devoted to what he regards as duty, least influenced by considerations of position, or the authority of advocates of special causes.” Enthusiasm was always one of Gates’s traits.
But Rockefeller had proposed the trip not to discuss the university, but to look Gates over. The younger man waited vainly all evening for his companion to speak of higher education. Instead, Rockefeller talked probingly of general subjects. It became evident to Gates that he was being sized up; that his capacity, insight, and dependability were being weighed. And soon afterward, Rockefeller imposed some special tests. Hearing that Gates was going south, he asked the young man to look over an iron mill there. Gates turned in a model report, stating all the facts—though they reflected strongly on Rockefeller’s judgment or that of his advisers in this investment. A little later Gates made a western journey. “I gave him the name and address of property in that region in which I held a minority interest,” writes Rockefeller. “I felt quite sure that this particular property was doing well, and it was somewhat of a shock to me to learn through his clear and definite account that it was only a question of time before this enterprise, too, which had been represented as rolling in money, would get into trouble.” As soon as Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago, Gates joined Goodspeed in collecting funds and making initial plans for the institution. His address, earnestness, and vision in this work impressed Rockefeller.