Q&A: FedEx founder, veteran Fred Smith offers unusual gift | lifestyle

Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, believes that if you have done good, you should give back to the public interest.

The 78-year-old Marine Corps veteran stepped down as CEO of FedEx last year but remains its executive chairman. The billionaire rarely publicizes his and his family’s philanthropic giving, but he agreed to talk about a recently announced donation to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation that he and the foundation estimate could grow to as much as $65 million over time.

“What I’m interested in are institutions and causes, not naming or recognition,” Smith told The Associated Press.

The structure of the gift is unusual. Smith, who describes himself as “the biggest movie mogul no one has ever heard of,” financed the production of “Devotion,” which tells the story of two Navy pilots in the Korean War. Jesse Brown, the first black man to be a Navy pilot, and another Navy aviator, Tom Hudner, flew a mission together in 1950 near the Chosin Dam in North Korea.

Brown died after landing his damaged plane, despite Hudner’s efforts to save him. Hudner returned to North Korea in 2013 in an effort to find Brown’s remains, and Smith and Brown’s family continue to search. The film is based on research done for the book of the same name.

In December, the foundation announced that Smith was donating proceeds from the film, in part to endow a new scholarship fund, the Brown Hudner Navy Scholarship Foundation, for children of Navy members studying STEM.

Shannon Razsadin, who heads the advocacy organization Military Family Advisory Network, said the scholarships help change the future of the entire family. “When you’re dealing with things like food shortages or figuring out a good place to live when you’re moving every two and a half years on average, the idea of ​​saving for college can seem really far away,” she said.

The Smith family has long supported MCSF, giving $1.6 million prior to this latest donation. While “Devotion” likely didn’t turn a profit from its November theatrical release, Smith is confident that the revenue will add up when it’s streamed, currently on Paramount+, and televised.

This interview has been shortened and edited.

Q: How did this gift come about?

A: Everything I did running FedEx was based on my experiences in the Marine Corps, not what I learned at Yale. So I’ve always wanted to do something out of gratitude or appreciation for my fellow Marines.

I’ve been in the movie business for a long time and this story of Brown and Hunter just struck me that these two men, especially Brown, never got the recognition they should have. And I came up with this idea: This way to pay my dues to the Marine Corps and do something I thought was important to the nation was to produce this film. I was sure that my daughters, Molly and Rachel, who are very experienced film producers, and especially (director) JD Dillard, whose father was a naval aviator, could relate.


Q: What do you hope people take away from “Devotion”?

And no. 1: Brown in particular was one of the great heroes of the Republic and was largely overlooked. He was to naval aviation and to the military what Jackie Robinson was to baseball.

I just thought it was a story that was so powerful for America today, which is so divided and has all these, I think in most cases, exaggerated racial tropes. That it was a story about two men in a very tough business who got together completely by chance. And at the end, they judged each other—even though they went through some tense times that the movie doesn’t overlook—as Dr. Martin Luther King, by the content of their character, not by ethnicity.


Q: What impact do you hope these scholarships will have?

A: I hope it will produce a lot of engineers, scientists, mathematicians and people who are doctors and researchers. Our country is in dire need of all these skills. We have a shortage in their production. We lag behind other parts of the world in these degrees. So somehow we have to make STEM education and health education more options for America’s youth, whether they were born here or not.


Q: Many service members and their families struggle to pay for the basics and save for college. Would you support a change in how members of the armed forces are paid or housed or supported?

A: Being in the military has its good points and its bad points. Of all the things these people have to deal with, providing for their children’s education is one of the most stressful and difficult.

Hopefully, the story of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and the Brown Hudner Fund might inspire other people in other branches of the military to address the exact issue you just asked me: how can you best help the military community? Well, it would be to provide a college education for their children.

Q: You have been a leader in many areas: in business, in sports. You have been advising politicians and presidents for 50 years. What do you think it means to contribute to the public good and how can philanthropy play a role in this?

A: America is the most generous country in the world. It’s amazing how many charitable contributions Americans make each year. Everything from the smallest things to these massive healthcare initiatives and the Gates Foundation and everything in between. I think if you’ve done well in this country, it’s rather delicate of you not to at least be willing to give a pretty good portion of it back to the public interest. And all this is in the great tradition of American philanthropy.

Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits gets support through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content. For all AP philanthropy information, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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