Philanthropist Fred Kirby remembered with laughter and some tears by his family

walker and fred kirby
Walker and Fred M. Kirby II at Tartan Day ceremony at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown, October 2010. Photo by Stan Freeney, courtesy of Macculloch Hall Historical Museum.
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One sign of a life well lived is laughter at the funeral.

Fred Morgan Kirby II generated plenty of amusing family stories during his 91 years, and they resonated inside Grace Episcopal Church in Madison on Saturday. The philanthropist and business mogul had a reputation as a thrifty workaholic, traits his son Jefferson wryly acknowledged.

“He’s probably wondering what all of you are doing here instead of something more productive,” Jeff said, eliciting chuckles among the 540 mourners who packed the pews and lined the aisles.

Fred Kirby, a New Vernon resident who died Tuesday in North Carolina, where he had a home, was chairman and CEO of the Alleghany Corp. and president of the Morristown-based F.M. Kirby Foundation for decades, starting in 1967.

walker and fred kirby
Walker and Fred M. Kirby II at Tartan Day ceremony at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown, October 2010. Photo by Stan Freeney, courtesy of Macculloch Hall Historical Museum.

Family members noted that Alleghany stock delivered a cumulative return of nearly 24,000 percent to shareholders during Fred’s tenure, nearly five times better than the cumulative return of the S & P 500.

And the Foundation’s assets grew more than 33-fold, to more than $400 million, enabling millions of dollars in gifts to medical research, arts and education, and conservative public policy causes. Numerous Morristown-area nonprofits have benefited from Kirby Foundation grants.

The church roared when Jeff recounted a tense negotiation during Alleghany’s sale of IDS Financial Services to American Express in 1983.

“Dad calmly stood up and said, ‘I have to leave,’ and walked out of the room,” Jeff said. Worried that the deal was collapsing, American Express rescinded a concession demand.

“Dad shortly thereafter returned to the negotiating room, and the deal proceeded on favorable terms. He later explained to his colleagues that he needed to go down to the street and put quarters in the parking meter.”

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The body of philanthropist Fred. M. Kirby II is carried from Grace Episcopal Church in Madison on Saturday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

A LASTING IMPRESSION

As the great-grandson of a founder of the F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime chain, Fred never wanted for anything. Yet the Depression made a lasting impression, Jeff said.

Fred’s children were taught to clean their plates at dinner, and they learned the value of money by working for small allowances. His daughter, Alice K. Horton, is an avid gardener but joked that she refuses to grow myrtle because it reminds her of childhood gardening in the hot sun.

She remembered her father whistling to signal his arrival home from work at 6:30 each evening;  supper was promptly at 6:45.  As a little girl, she stirred his tea and liked to feel his Adam’s apple as he drank it. When she became a competitive swimmer, Fred coached her, extending a broomstick for her to dive over.

Fred’s son Dillard, who assumed the presidency of the F.M. Kirby Foundation from his father, never forgot the laser-focused tough love he received as a chubby teen. “Do you live to eat, or eat to live?”  his father asked him.

Dillard evoked laughter when he quipped: “For Dad’s sake, the funeral is on Saturday so we didn’t have to close the office!”

Jeff described his father as calm yet direct, and a stickler for details– right down to spelling and grammar on minutes from board meetings.

That attention to detail even extended to the lighting for a new stadium at Fred Kirby’s alma mater, Lafayette College, where he had played for the school’s last undefeated football team.

Lafayette President Daniel Weiss said Fred suggested improvements that the stadium architects had overlooked; the changes were implemented.

“He gave unstintingly the best within him…so we could fulfill our highest aspirations,” the college president said.

Fred didn’t always get it right. He opposed Lafayette College going co-ed in the early 1970s. But he accepted the school’s decision and eventually realized it was correct, Jeff said.

While “death is the great leveler,” the Rev. Lauren Ackland said “you don’t have to be a religious person to believe Fred Kirby is going to live on, in his accomplishments.” He touched many lives, she said, and changed the world in many ways.

JET-SKIS AT 85

During World War II, Fred served in the Navy, stationed in England and France; he was part of an advanced port and reconnaissance party after the Allied invasion. When the war ended, he attended the Harvard Graduate School of Business and started several business ventures.

It wasn’t all work and no play.

In addition to his business and philanthropic ventures and service on numerous boards — including Morristown Memorial Hospital’s — Fred found time for piloting, fishing, sailing, tennis, scuba diving, hang-gliding, and fox-hunting with the Spring Valley Hounds. His equestrian background played a role in his meeting Alice Walker Dillard, of North Carolina. They were married in 1949 and had four children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

At age 63, Fred got a motorcycle license. His wife gave him a jet-ski for his 85th birthday. Into his 90s, when he no longer could hike or clear trails at his Jerseyfield Preserve in the Adirondacks, he drove his ATV through the woods.

Fred was privileged but not big on pomp, Jeff said, sharing a story that delighted his father after a private tour they were given by an admiral aboard the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier.

“As the admiral finished his comments in one compartment and the group moved on, I was near the end of the line as one sailor, left behind, turned to another and said: ‘Holy Toledo–even the admiral has to kiss a– once in awhile!'”

On a more solemn note, Dillard cited his father’s belief in limited government and his support for medical research, organ donor awareness, population control, land conservation, school choice, and the arts.

He fought back emotion as he recalled his father’s high standards, embodied in Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech that Fred Kirby had hung in the Foundation office.

The closing lines, Dillard said, epitomized his father’s philanthropic legacy and the message passed from father to son :

Duty. Honor. Country.

Three humble  words, Dillard said, that dictate “what you want to be, what you can be, what you will be.”

The burial of Fred M. Kirby II was scheduled for his native Wilkes-Barre, PA. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that people plant tree seedlings in Fred’s memory and said the Arbor Day Foundation can help.

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

fred kirby funeral
Mourners file out of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison after funeral for philanthropist Fred M. Kirby II. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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4 COMMENTS

  1. A few years ago, probably circa 2005, Mr. Kirby corresponded with me since Vincent, his third cousin, my husband, was sick, and Mr Kirby was interested in genealogy as was my husband. My husband died May of 2006. I really felt privileged that such an important man would exchange e-mails with me. My husband, Vincent took me to Greystone Terrace possibly about 1990 or so, after the home was I believe donated to the Episcopal Church. Vince’s grandfather, Fred Slater , was a first cousin to Fred I. Vincent said that their chauffeur taught him how to drive. I have many pictures of the home and family that my husband collected. I even have a picture of Mr. Kirby, Walker, children & grandchildren that Mr. Kirby sent to Vincent, in his later years. I’m sorry that I never got to meet him. I did meet his mother, wife of Alan, I believe , at her home in Morristown. I apologize for this late response. He apparently was a very kind, gentle man.

    Shirley Slater

  2. The strangest thing happened this morning.
    I was thinking of Walker Kirby. So I went
    on line to search about her husband and
    Family accomplishments. I was amazed,
    what a fine gentlemen Mr Kirby was.
    This is the first time I was on line
    reading about the family. The irony is that
    Today is when he passed away! Feb 8!
    Mrs . Walker Kirby and family my prayers
    are with you today and forever. I’m
    Honored to have had Mrs Walker Kirby
    And her Adirondack family at my
    Establishment Crystal Chandelier for annual
    Birthday dinners. My prayers are with
    You on this day and years to come.
    I know how it is to lose a parent, I lost
    My MOM last February 25.2014.
    It will never be the same!
    Rudolph Scialdo II
    Owner Crystal Chandelier New York

  3. It was a privilege to work for Mr. and Mrs. Kirby as a live in housekeeper, custom cook. I traveled with them to their homes in North Carolina and New Jersey and New York and was treated very well by both of them. I have the fondest memories of that year that I lived with them. I learned so much from their wonderful family. I have all the respect in the world for the entire family.

    Sincerely,

    Susie Bradwin

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