John D. Rockefeller was born July 8, 1839, in Richford, New York, about midway between Binghamton and Ithaca. His father, William Avery Rockefeller, was a “pitch man” — a “doctor” who claimed he could cure cancers and charged up to $25 a treatment. He was gone for months at a time traveling around the West from town to town and would return to wherever the family was living with substantial sums of cash. His mother, Eliza Davison Rockefeller, was very religious and very disciplined. She taught John to work, to save, and to give to charities.
From 1852 Rockefeller attended Owego Academy in Owego, New York, where the family had moved in 1851. Rockefeller excelled at mental arithmetic and was able to solve difficult arithmetic problems in his head — a talent that would be very useful to him throughout his business career. In other subjects Rockefeller was an average student but the quality of the education was very high.
In 1853, the Rockefellers moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and John attended high school from 1853 to 1855. He was very good at math and was on the debating team. The school encouraged public speaking and even though Rockefeller was only average, it was a skill that would prove to useful to him.
Early Business Career: 1855-1863
In the spring of 1855 Rockefeller spent 10 weeks at Folsom’s Commercial College — a “chain College” — where he learned single- and double-entry bookkeeping, penmanship, commercial history, mercantile customs, banking, and exchange. From his father he had learned how to draw up notes and other business papers. His father was very meticulous in matters of business and believed in the sacredness of contracts.
In August of 1855, at the age of 16, Rockefeller began looking for work in Cleveland as a bookkeeper or clerk. Business was bad in Cleveland at the time and Rockefeller had problems finding a job. He was always neatly dressed in a dark suit and black tie. Cleveland was not a large city in 1855 and Rockefeller could easily visit every business in under a week’s time. He returned to many businesses three times. Finally, on September 26, 1855, he got a job as an assistant bookkeeper with Hewitt & Tuttle, commission merchants and produce shippers.
Rockefeller soon impressed his employers with his seriousness and diligence. He was very exacting and scrupulously honest. For example, he would not write out a false bill of lading under any circumstances. He went to great lengths to collect overdue accounts. He was pleasant, persistent, and patient, and he got the company’s money from the delinquents.
During the Civil War their business expanded rapidly. Grain prices went up and so did their commissions. Most of their selling was done on commission, so Clark & Rockefeller took no risks from price fluctuations. Rockefeller’s style was very precise and calculated. He was not a gambler but a planner. He avoided speculation and refused to make advances or loans.
Rockefeller was extremely hard working. He traveled extensively, drumming up business throughout Ohio, and then would go to the banks and borrow large sums of money to handle the shipments. This aggressive style built the business up every year.

However, by the early 1860s, Rockefeller realized that the future of the commission merchant business in Cleveland was going to be limited. He had become convinced that the railroads were going to become the primary means of transportation for agricultural commodities. This would be to the disadvantage of Cleveland, because its position as an important Lake Erie port was its primary transportation advantage. He saw that the rising grain output of the Midwest and the Northwest of J. J. Hill would change the nature of the business for good. The huge elevators on Lake Michigan and the flour-millers of Minneapolis would be the dominant players in the business. Rockefeller came to believe that the future of Cleveland lay in the collection and shipment of raw industrial materials — not agricultural commodities. This would allow Cleveland to exploit its geographical advantages — mid-way between the Eastern seaboard and Chicago — and accessible to both rail and water transportation. He saw his chance in 1863 — 
Rockefeller Exits: 1892-1897
During 1891-92 all the evidence suggests that Rockefeller had a partial nervous breakdown from overwork. He lost all of his hair, including his eyebrows, and suffered from ill health in the early 1890s.
During this period Rockefeller’s wealth had increased to such an extent that his major problem was what to do with it all. He solved this problem by hiring Frederick T. Gates in September of 1891 as a full-time manager of his fortune. By this time, Rockefeller was literally inundated with appeals from individuals and charities for funds. Gates not only removed this burden; he also oversaw all of Rockefeller’s investments, which were becoming huge in their own right. For example, by 1897 Rockefeller owned large holdings of the Missabe iron range in Minnesota, a railroad to carry the ore to Lake Superior, and a fleet of huge ore-carrying lake steamers. In 1901 Rockefeller sold his iron ore-related business to J.P. Morgan for $80,000,000 with an estimated profit of at least $50,000,000 — a huge fortune in its own right, but it was just one of his investments. Morgan added the Rockefeller properties to the U.S. Steel Corporation.
By 1896, Rockefeller stopped going to his office daily and in 1897 he retired, at the age of 58. He took part in some management activity until 1899 but none to speak of thereafter. John Archbold ran Standard Oil from the mid-1890s onward. Archbold disliked prominence and asked Rockefeller to remain as the nominal president of Standard. Not publicly announcing his retirement was a great mistake on Rockefeller’s part. Rockefeller had resisted the temptation to exploit the Standard’s near-monopoly position by raising prices “too” much. Although Rockefeller’s pricing policies did result in some “monopoly profits” for the Standard, they were fairly mild. Not so Archbold. He raised prices aggressively, and the dividends rolled in. The consequence was that Rockefeller got all the blame for the policies even though he had almost no further role in management.
Retirement and Philanthropy
From the mid-1890s until his death in 1937, Rockefeller’s activities were philanthropic. Rockefeller’s fortune peaked in 1912 at almost $900,000,000, but by that time he had already given away hundreds of millions of dollars. His son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1897 joined Gates in the full time management of the fortune.
The University of Chicago — which Rockefeller was largely responsible for creating — alone received $75,000,000 by 1932.
He set up, at the urging of his son, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) and his gifts to it totaled $50,000,000 by the 1930s.
He founded the General Education Board in 1903 (later the Rockefeller Foundation). The General Education Board helped to establish high schools throughout the South by providing free professional advice on improving instruction and education. The effort was a cooperative one, and local money was used to build the high schools. In 1919, Rockefeller donated $50,000,000 to the Board to raise academic salaries, which were very low in the wake of WWI.
The Rockefeller Foundation was officially established in 1913 and Rockefeller transferred $235,000,000 to it by 1929.
In 1909, Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission which was largely responsible for eradicating hookworm in the South by 1927.
When Rockefeller died, on May 23, 1937, his estate totaled only $26,410,837. He had given most of his property to his philanthropies and to his son and other heirs.
Rockefeller was a Schumpeteran entrepreneur. He clearly changed “the stream of the allocation of resources over time by introducing new departures into the flow of economic life” by creating the modern oil industry.

Last, but not least, he set the standard for philanthropy. Just the eradication of hookworm in the South alone would merit his place as one of the great humanitarians of the 20th Century. But his reputation was so sullied that he never received the credit that he was due for this great act on behalf of humankind.

“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.”

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