By Karl Rodney
When I learned of the passing of David Rockefeller, the last of the Rockefeller brothers at age 101, it brought memories of how we connected, and his keen sense as to the demographic composition of New York City and the potential of the Caribbean-American community.
It was in 1984 that I got a call from Jewell Jackson McCabe, the daughter of the legend Hal Jackson, and President of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. I had known Jewell from working with her father on his well-known Talented Teen contest, and we would occasionally speak on the phone; this call however, was different. She said to me, “Karl, expect a call from David Rockefeller”. I replied, “which David Rockefeller”- she emphasized, “The David Rockefeller”. The next obvious question was “why was David Rockefeller calling me?” ; Jewell simply said, “please accept the call when it comes”
Sure enough, a day later I got the call from David Rockefeller. When I answered, he calmly said, in that very polished way, “Karl, this is David Rockefeller, how are you?” It took a moment to respond “just fine thanks Mr. Rockefeller”. He responded ‘please call me David, and if it’s OK with you I would wish to call you Karl, it would make communication so easy’. I responded “it’s just fine”, and the conversation continued.
The call was to invite my wife and me to dinner at the Rockefeller Estate in Pocantico Hills, the family compound
just north of New York City. When asked if I would be available to join him, my obvious response was, of course.
He expressed his delight at the acceptance to join him, and told me to expect his office to contact me with the details.
Sure enough, I was contacted, transportation was arranged, dress code, timing; everything, just like clockwork. I was still
not sure what was the reason for the invitation, but I was delighted to be invited.
The afternoon of the engagement, we were taken to the Rockefeller Estate, there were four other limos all seemed to be arriving at the same time. We exited the car, and so did four other couples. We arrived in this beautiful garden setting; It was early autumn and flowers exquisitely arranged could be seen.
We were escorted to a smaller garden, a little more secluded, and we were met by David Rockefeller himself. What a warm greeting we all received. We were all introduced, offered refreshments and started on what was to be a personal tour of the Rockefeller Estate, conducted by David Rockefeller himself. It was just stunning, how the family history and all kinds of stories came out during the tour. Some of the stories were very funny even uncomplimentary.
After the tour, we settled in another beautiful garden for cocktails and small talk. Everybody got a chance to know a little more about each other. It was clear the five couples were invited, in a small intimate setting, for a special reason.
David Rockefeller, his wife and staff were all so gracious and fun filled. The evening was relaxed. Dinner was served in a covered area adorned with beautiful flowers. The food was delicious and the service first class; the main course, chateaubriand (filet mignon) was fixed precisely to my liking.
After dinner, we repaired to another beautiful setting for dessert, coffee and liqueurs. It was then that David sat with each couple separately to discuss with them the reason for the dinner invitation. Sitting with us, he extended the invitation for me to join the New York City Partnership Board. The Partnership was a coalition of Business Executives, community representatives chaired by David Rockefeller to foster innovation in public schools, public services, develop quality housing for low and middle class families. New York City was going through some tough economic times, and David
Rockefeller , then the Chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and the Rockefeller widespread interests, wanted major corporations working with community representatives to help the City out of its financial woes.
I knew of the work of the New York City Partnership and its Board with every major Corporation CEO as members. But why me! I did not ask the question, but David Rockefeller had the answer. He went on to explain in a very calm but certain unhesitating tone, that the impact of representatives of the Caribbean-American community into the partnership program and the growth of the City was very important.
It was clear that he was aware of my background of activities on behalf of various Caribbean Organizations. The acquisition of Jamaica House in the prime real estate area of New York City and my role in it did not escape him; he was also informed of my corporate background at Equitable Life where I led for years, an Executive in Residence program at several southern black colleges, and the Internship program I started at the company for students from the south. I had already
left the company, but he was up on my background and achievements in community, corporate, and in national organizations.
Sitting close, just the three of us, Faye, David, and myself he tapped me on the knee and said, “Karl you would make a great contribution to the New York City Partnership; would you please join us on the Board”. There was only one answer, “Yes, David, I will”.
The evening continued very pleasantly. There was one other black couple, Linda and Lee Dunham, owner of the Black McDonald franchise, and we became friends after this meeting. Lee also joined the Board. The other three couples were all warm and friendly and each committed to joining the Board.
So started my stint at the New York City Partnership that lasted for twelve years. It gave me opportunity to observe, study and engage in critical decisions as the City tried to cope
with its problems. The support the Partnership played in schools and housing. We started housing development in Brooklyn and Harlem, tackled opportunities for women and minority businesses, advocated for diversity in major corporations - many sitting at the table – and brought respect and understanding for a community emerging in the City.
I saw David Rockefeller at several Board meetings before he demitted office officially, but his presence was always felt. We met on a few social occasions and he never forgot who I was, in spite of meeting hundreds of clearly more important people than me. But it is this quality of the man that needs comment now as we remember him, that he was rich, powerful and important but he had a conscience for what was right, and a commitment to the less fortunate, and did something about it.
As you look at most of the rich and powerful today, there is no such consciousness, no commitment, mostly greed.
The David Rockefeller connection for the community and me was an experience of courage and statesmanship. Wish for more like him.