Fred M. Kirby II, ‘lion of philanthropy,’ remembered for generosity in Morristown

Walker and Fred M. Kirby II at Tartan Day ceremony at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown last October. Photo by Stan Freeny, courtesy Macculloch Hall Historical Museum
Walker and Fred M. Kirby II at Tartan Day ceremony at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown last October. Photo by Stan Freeny, courtesy Macculloch Hall Historical Museum

Fred M. Kirby II, who gave millions of dollars to area charities during more than four decades as president of the Morristown-based F.M. Kirby Foundation, died Tuesday in North Carolina. He was 91.

Fred Kirby II was named for his great-grandfather, a founder of the F.W. Woolworth dime store chain. In 1967, Fred  succeeded his father, Alan P. Kirby of Morristown, as president of the F.M. Kirby Foundation, where he remained as an officer until last year. His son S. Dillard Kirby succeeded him as president.

In 1967 Fred also took over from his father as CEO and chairman of the Alleghany Corp. and served as chairman until 2006. The publicly traded company had interests in railroads, insurance, asset management, trucking and industrial minerals, according to the family.

“He was a lion of philanthropy, a historic figure in philanthropy in this community,” said Hans Dekker, president of the Community Foundation of New Jersey.

Numerous local organizations expressed gratitude for support by Fred and the F.M. Kirby Foundation.

Walker and Fred M. Kirby II at Tartan Day ceremony at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown last October. Photo by Stan Freeny, courtesy Macculloch Hall Historical Museum
Walker and Fred M. Kirby II at Tartan Day ceremony at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown last October. Photo by Stan Freeny, courtesy Macculloch Hall Historical Museum

“Fred Kirby was a true champion of the theater and his legacy will live on through the hundreds of thousands of audience members, school children and educators that benefit from the performing arts programs that we offer at the theater each year,” said Allison Larena, president and CEO of the Community Theatre in Morristown.

“We’ve lost a dear friend.  He will be missed.”

The F.M. Kirby Foundation had assets of more than $408 million in 2009 –the most recent year for which figures are available–and it gave away more than $17 million that year, according to the Foundation Center, an organization that tracks the philanthropy world.

Charitable donations from the foundation are spread among nonprofits in education, health and medicine, the arts and humanities, civic and public affairs, as well as religious, welfare and youth organizations, according to the F.M. Kirby Foundation website.

Nationally, the foundation has supported medical research and service organizations and a variety of conservative think-tanks and public policy groups.

Local beneficiaries include the Arts Council of the Morris Area, the Morris Museum, First Night Morris County, the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum, the Morris County Historical Society, the Masterwork Chorus, the Washington Association of New Jersey, Homeless Solutions, the Market Street Mission and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, home of the F.M. Kirby Theatre.

Debbie Williams, former chairperson of First Night Morris County, said the generosity of the F.M.Kirby Foundation is a big reason that the family-friendly New Year’s Eve event has continued in Morristown for 19 years.

“We’re sorry he is no longer with us,” she said of Fred, a New Vernon resident who was born in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Leslie Bensley, executive director of the Morris County Tourism Bureau, remembered Fred as “one of the most magnanimous and stalwart contributors to Morris County and Morristown, and one of the most influential and generous people I’ve had the privilege to know.”

Morristown resident Alice Cutler said Fred’s wife, Walker Kirby, was like a second mother to her. Walker has served on the boards of The Seeing Eye and the Peck School, among other places. The Kirbys were married for 61 years.

“It’s devastatingly sad news,” Alice said of Fred’s passing. “He was one of the most community-minded men of his time, a wonderful family man. God didn’t make many men like Fred Kirby.”

Fred  was a former vestryman at Morristown’s Church of the Redeemer. Down the street at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the F.M. Kirby Foundation has supported structural renovations and programs including the youth ministry, said the Rev. Janet Broderick, the church rector. She recalled seeing Fred last October during a church concert celebrating the 200th anniversary of Macculloch Hall.

“He was so alive and happy.  He had lovely smile on his face as he watched the girls and boys choir sing.  When the bag-pipes entered the church he beamed.  We will miss him terribly and our prayers are for his entire family and especially Walker,” the minister said.

“The Foundation has been central to our mission.  A family with such a faithful, compassionate and generous heart is a rare gift.  We have been deeply blessed with money both for our structures and our programs… I suppose more important has been the gift of his discernment and belief in our work.”

Paul Laud, chairman of the Morris Museum, recalled being seated with Fred and Walker Kirby at an event years ago, before he knew who they were.

“He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. Later, I said to some other trustees that this fellow I was sitting with was a wonderful chap. And they whispered in my ear, that’s Fred Kirby!

Fred  served on the boards of Morristown Memorial Hospital, Lafayette College and the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, among others. In 2000, the football foundation gave him its gold medal, an honor bestowed on seven presidents, Douglas MacArthur, Jackie Robinson and George Steinbrenner.

The F.M. Kirby Foundation philosophy is summarized on its website:

History demonstrates time and time again that when people united in a charitable cause, which is right and good, the impossible becomes possible. America’s proliferation of nonprofit organizations and vast philanthropic resources is unparalleled within the global community.

We believe that private philanthropy, at its best, if provided compassionately and prudently, encourages self-reliance and diminishes government’s role.

Dedicated grantors and grantees, working together, tend to ennoble and enrich our society.

Managing great wealth is not without its frictions, however. In the 1980s, Fred removed three of his siblings from the foundation board in a dispute over the foundation’s direction.

“He was firm,” said retired Morristown lawyer Clifford Starrett, who knew Fred as a benefactor of the Trustees of the Morristown Green (no connection to this website), among other contacts.  “He had certain principles, and he was very firm in sticking to them. He had a very responsible attitude towards money, and felt it should not be wasted.”

In addition to his wife, Fred Kirby II is survived by four children, ten grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

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