Wall Street whiz-cum-philanthropist

This winding, carless Bahamian country road seems like it's perched at the edge of some forbidden world. Low, puffy clouds plod across steamy tropical skies above, only mildly breaking the heat of summer sun. Thick vegetation, evergreens and coconut palms , line the roadside for miles. The greenery is interrupted now and then by dazzling red poinciana blossoms that spill toward the ground in fiery cascades.

Suddenly a broad clearing, sweeping up to a hill topped by a small white mansion with fluted neoclassic columns. It is nestled in exotic trees smelling of fresh citrus, overlooking a vast golf course that stretches out to beaches on the open sea.

Some people retreat to such off-the-beaten-paths to escape the world.

John Marks Templeton moved here to participate in it.

From his perch on the west end of Nassau he finds it easier to survey the world of high finance, managing his $1.6 billion mutual funds on behalf of some 132,000 shareholders, and doing what Wall Street least expects.

And it is here that he dreams up his remarkable philanthropic ventures, including his unique annual award for progress in religion. At $200,000 it has become the most lucrative prize of any kind in the world.

Forbes magazine recently dubbed him "one of the handful of true investment greats in a field crowded with mediocrity and bloated reputations." It's no surprise that a man of such off-the-beaten-path success has been thinking in quite-off-the- beaten-path terms. Forty years' investment experience, contacts with religious leaders all over the world, and a devout Christian faith -- these have spawned an approach to "making it" in this world that defies convention.

While most investment analysts hunt for popular stocks with quick-profit promise, John Templeton sinks his chips into unpopular stocks with long-term promise.

While American economists worry about foreign competition invading United States markets, John Templeton says, Not to worry. Open up the floodgates of competition. Free competition makes all kinds of progress happen.

While many despair today that religious differences will remain a hopeless source of world conflict, John Templeton thinks that an era of unprecedented civility in interfaith relations is afoot.

Sitting in his living room in an open-collar field shirt, sipping a cold drink, the financier-philanthropist looks comfortably detached from the high-strung, pin-striped world of high finance and money managers.

The setting inside, as out, is stylish "Southern plantation," reminiscent of his Tennessee boyhood. A collection of butteflies from Britain hangs on the wall over a striking yellow-uphostered sofa with a high, rounded back bordered with wood trim. An antique Bible lies on a delicate marble- topped coffee table. An intricately carved ivory Buddha decorates another table, one of many mementos from his wide-raning world travels.

Mr. Templeton is a man of quiet confidence with a gentle cordiality that seems to tinge the elegant surroundings with a friendly informality. And though he is clearly riding the crest of an enormously successful financial career, the memories of humble beginnings are never far behind.

"After my first year at Yale," he recalls, "the Great Depression became very severe.Back at our home in Winchester, Tenn., my father told me he just couldn't pay another dollar for my education. I was upset, of course, but that was actually the best thing that ever happened to me.

"My family borrowed enough to get me back to college. I took jobs, applied for scholarships, and had to work hard to keep the scholarships. But the great blessing was that I was being forced to keep up my academics while at the same time earn money for expenses. It caused me to develop God-given talents that I might otherwise have neglected."

After finishing at Yale, he studied economics at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. In May 1937 he returned to the US and a frugal New York existence. He took a job with a small investment firm.

Even at that impoverished, assetless stage, John Templeton was dreaming big. He and his wife, Irene, resolved to save 50 cents out of every dollar earned. They made it into "a pleasure," asking friends to help them find things at low cost. In Manhattan an unfurnished apartment was found. They set aside a mere $ 25 for furnishings, and in typical Templeton fashion, believed it could be done.

"We went to auctions in those days, and when something came up that got no bids, we offered 10 cents $1. And so we bought furniture for five rooms at almost zero cost. . . ."

And eventually the savings of 50 cents per dollar got a Templeton investment counselling office into operation.

"Anybody can do it," Mr. Templeton says, giving one of his slight, prodding smiles.

The Templeton art of tracking down the unlikely bargain translated neatly into the management of his enormously successful mutual funds. When developing his investment portfolios, Templeton calculates what he considers the real value of corporations around the world -- as opposed to the actual selling price of their stocks. When the anticipated future earnings of a company seem to be far greater than is reflected in the price of its stocks, Templeton buys in the expectation that the market value will rise dramatically in the long run.

An astonishing amount of the time, the record shows, he's been right.

for instance, the Templeton Growth Fund (a long-term capital growth fund incorporated in Canada that invests in stocks around the world) was valued at $7 million when he started it in 1954. Now it is worth $600 million. Anyone investing in the growth fund over any five-year period in its 27-year history, he says, would have made at least 20 percent profit -- in some cases 100 percent.

His World Fund (incorporated in the United States) has grown 100 percent since its founding in 1977 and now has assets of $550 million.

But just as you begin to understand how Templeton cracks the hard coconut shell of world investment, the self-made Homo economicusm turns Homo religiosus.m He's even more interested in investments of the religious kind, quite convinced that their ultimate dividends far outpace stocks.

"Life on earth is only a brief moment between two eternities," he says, "and to pay too much attention to what happens during our lifetime here is stupid, shortsighted.

"For most of my life I was so busy with the urgent things that I didn't spend enough on the important things, the spiritual and eternal things. Now I am trying to devote half my total time to the important things."

Mr. Templeton, a devout Christian and elder in the Presbyterian Church, is on the board of managers of the American Bible Society and is a trustee of Princeton Theological Seminary. His latest book, "The Humble Approach," throws down the gauntlet to the view that religion has been outmoded by the scientific age or that natural science is close to theological possibilities.

But in the past decade he has devoted most of his "theological time" to the award he gives for progress in religion. The Nobel people, he felt, had ignored the field.To fill the void, he created a prize to annually recognize living persons who make outstanding contributions to the understanding and love of God. It is awarded each year by Britain's Prince Philip in a ceremony in London's ancient Guildhall.

Beginning in 1972 at $85,000, the Templeton Prize cash award has been rising steadily to keep just ahead of the also- lucrative Nobel Prize. It now is at $ 200,000, and Mr. Templeton is determined to keep the prize money the highest of all world prizes as a visible symbol that progress in religion is more needed than in all other fields.

"I guess I visualize my philanthropic niche as a missionary's helper," he explains. "What I'm able to do is find people who are making a real contribution to God's work and to help other people hear about it. When I find somebody like Mother Teresa [first Templeton Prize recipient, known for her care for Calcutta's poor and destitute] and giver her the prize, she has some extra money. That's not too much, but she also then has more volunteers and donations. Millions of people who had not heard of her are inspired and uplifted and have a bigger concept of God because they've heard about her work."

Ironically, this first winner of the "Nobel in religion" would go on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

In addition to Mother Theresa, the award has gone to notables like Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the Hindu scholar and professor at Oxford University whose work bridged religious thinkers and interests East and West; Prof. Thomas F. Torrance, theology professor at the University of Edinburgh, for his research into the relation of science and religion; and Nikkyo Niwano, founder of the huge Buddhist lay organization, Rissho Kosei-Kai, involved in a variety of social actions for the needy.

In its 10-year history the Templeton Prize has itself become a missionary of sorts for bringing together leaders of diverse faiths. Winners are selected by a rotatng eight-member panel of judges from around the world who are advised by another 60-member international panel of religious advisers.

The list of the first panel of judges, for instance, reads like a Who's Who of religion:

The Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, then general secretary of the World Council of Churches; Prof. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, national professor of India in the Humanities (Hindu); Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, then president of the International Court of Justice in the Hague (Muslim); Dr. Margaretha Klompe, a former Dutch government minister (Roman Catholic); the Rev. Dr. James McCord, president of Princeton Theological Seminary (Presbyterian); Sir Alan Mocatta, a judge of the High Court in England (Jewish); The Lord Abbot Kosho Ohtani, chief monk of the Nishi Hongwangji Temple, Japan (Buddhist); Lord Thurlow, a former governor of the Bahamas (Anglican); the Right Rev. R. W. Woods, Bishop of Worcester, England (Anglican).

Mr. Templeton quickly points out that the prize is not an attempt to syncretize diverse religions, but rather to bring recognition to new ways in which the love for God has been increased in the various contexts.

Mr. Templeton puts no restrictions on what is done with the prize money. But he awards it for a very distinct purpose: He wants "the Templeton" to help reverse popular views that deny the possibility of religious progress.

"This is not a prize for religion," his brochure notes. "It is not a prize for a saintliness nor mere good works nor social justice nor racial justice nor peace. It is a prize for progress. . . . It is imperative that progress in religion be accelerated as progress in science and other disciplines takes place. A wider universe demands a fresh look at the omnipresence of the spirit and of the spiritual resources available to man, of the immensity of God, and of the divine knowledge and understanding still to be claimed."

Many years of talks with world religious leaders have also convinced John Templeton that an era of new civility among diverse religions is in the making.

"If you read back through history and anthropology," he says, "so many religions were identified with dictators. Priest and dictator were usually the same person, or closely allied. Anybody who said anything deviating from the priestly line was not just criticized but killed. There have been thousands of instances. It's only in the last few centuries that we've been willing to tolerate differences. And increasingly today people are willing to listen to each other -- even to admit that they might not know everything about God and that someone else might have something to learn about.

"The competition is no less than it was. But now it's more civilized. It's become a competition of love. I believe that's a direction of God's ongoing evolution. You may totally disagree with, say, the Moral Majority, but you should love them. The Moral Majority, but you should love them. The Moral Majority may disagree totally with a Roman Catholic, but should love him. I may want to give my

Religionists will be pressed to adopt more scientific methods, he says, in their search for deeper understanding and love of God.

Traditional theological institutions will be giving way to more creative approaches to community -- locally and globally.

The coming together of "men of goodwill" in the dialogue among religions, he believes, will open vast possibilities of sharing in new forms of mutual service and common concern for spiritual well-being.

Mulling over these thoughts, we go inside to see the antique world maps he has collected in his travels.

"This John Senex Atlas," he says, "is famous for picturing California as a large island."

The 1725 map was printed in London, at Dunfton's Church in Fleet Ftreet (as it appears to be spelled on the atlas).

"[It] wasn't all that long ago," he says. "I like to ponder the astonishing progress made since Senex wrote "Isle of California' on that map."

John Templeton likes even more to dream of vast accelerations of progress still in store.

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