John Templeton: Spiritually rich, and passing it on

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mar. 15, 2003
Gayle White

Winchester, Tenn. — As a first-grader selling mail-order fireworks to his classmates, John Marks Templeton showed a flair for business.

Early in life, he also exhibited an innate curiosity about God.

He never outgrew either.

Now 90, a knight of the British Empire with a fortune from international investing, Templeton is putting his money to work to learn more about the divine.

For 30 years, he has awarded an annual prize for the study of religion, always making sure that its monetary value is greater than the Nobel’s. The winner of this year’s prize of more than $1 million will be announced Wednesday. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, will present the award at a private ceremony in Buckingham Palace on May 7.

But the Templeton Prize — officially the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities — is just one of Templeton’s many incentives to get the world’s brightest minds to turn their attention heavenward.

The Tennessee-incorporated John Templeton Foundation, which pays for more than 150 projects and studies, focuses its resources on “the boundary between theology and science.” Scholars funded by Templeton are studying the effects of religious faith on medical healing, the roots of unselfish love, the relationship between character education and academic achievement, and the origins of the universe.

“The heart of it,” said Templeton, “is that we want to reach the point where humans know 100 times as much about God as any human ever knew before. If that happens, it will probably be by applying scientific research.”

Templeton, called by Money magazine “arguably the greatest global stock picker” of the 20th century, is becoming as widely known in the field of faith as in finance.

The Templeton Foundation “has lots of money,” said Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist of religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “They’re definitely putting it strategically into places to make a difference.”

By dispersing such massive resources, “you’re able, in some ways, to shape what issues are important on the cultural and intellectual landscape,” said James Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., which has received Templeton funds.

Although not everyone approves, Templeton’s interests, supported by his money, are coming into the academic mainstream.

“Wacky stuff, maybe, but it’s getting places,” said John Sedgwick, who wrote about Templeton in 2000 for Worth magazine. “The foundation’s spirituality and health initiative, once a fringy, New Age topic, is now moving to the center of the culture.”

Sunday school leader at 15

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Templeton toured his hometown of Winchester — including the stone two-story house his father built, the rebuilt Cumberland Presbyterian Church where he served as Sunday school superintendent at age 15, the mausoleum where he has laid two wives to rest and will himself be entombed, and the imposing library atop nearby Sewanee Mountain where his records will be kept after his death.

He pointed out the street sign for Templeton Way. A few years ago, the town renamed streets for him and another famous citizen, his former schoolmate “Fanny” Rose Shore, better known as Dinah.

The white-haired international financier turned boyish as he recited a ditty Winchester kids directed at the future singing star:

“Did Fanny sit on a tack?

“Shore, Fanny sat on a tack.

“Fanny Rose?

“Fanny Rose Shore.”

Templeton, now a naturalized British citizen living in the Bahamas, was staying at the Jameson Inn, a modest chain motel on the edge of town. His son Jack Jr., president of the Templeton Foundation, chauffeured him in a rented gray Ford.

Templeton has a reputation for being frugal. “Thrifty, I suppose, is the best word,” said Mary Walker, his assistant for 25 years.

He became rich by managing his money — and that of other people — based on lessons learned here in central Tennessee.

The Templeton family, well-off by the standards of the rural South in the early 20th century, was among the first in its community to acquire both a telephone and an automobile.

Green-bean entrepreneur

His father, Harvey Templeton, was a lawyer who never attended college. He also operated a cotton gin and bought financially troubled farms as they came up for auction. Watching people lose their homes because of debt made a lasting impression on John.

His mother, Vella, who had studied Greek and Latin at Winchester Normal College, taught and worked as a milliner before marrying Harvey. Afterward, she raised chickens, pigs, cows and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Even before he established his fireworks enterprise, Templeton learned to plant his own green beans, harvest and sell them.

A staunch member of the local Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Vella Templeton catered a local civic club’s luncheons to raise money to support a missionary in China.

“I thought in those days, when I was 12 or 14 years old, that it might be the most noble purpose you could have in life to become a Presbyterian missionary in China,” Templeton said.

But his mother’s interest in religion extended beyond Calvinism. She also subscribed to a newspaper from the Unity School of Christianity, a movement that emphasizes human potential.

“More than any other church I know, it said you should not be closed-minded,” recalled Templeton. Today, the president of the Association of Unity Churches is a trustee of the Templeton Foundation.

Vella applied her Unity philosophy to child rearing, giving John and his brother, Harvey, free rein, with faith that the “divine spark” within them would guide them, according to Templeton biographers.

John had never known anyone who had gone away to college, but when he finished high school, he headed off to Yale. He had been told by a farmer that it was “the best college in the country.”

When his father’s finances took a downturn in the Depression, he worked three jobs and studied hard enough to earn an academic scholarship.

After a stint at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, he spent months traveling through 35 countries, across Europe, the Middle East, China and Japan. The experience gave him an international view that guided his business for the next half-century.

Until he reached the New Haven campus, Templeton had never known a person who owned a share of stock. He was fascinated, but soon realized that all the investors he heard about had all their resources in American stocks — and there was a whole world teeming with business opportunities.

Penchant for saving, tithing

Templeton returned to Tennessee from his world travels in 1937 to marry his longtime sweetheart, Judith Dudley Folk. They found jobs in New York — she in advertising, he in investment counseling — but soon left for more money in Texas. Two years later they were back, with a nest egg toward buying into an investment firm.

From the beginning, Templeton said, the couple committed to save 50 percent of their income, a practice he kept up for more than 20 years. Also early in their married lives, they began to tithe.

As his business grew, so did their family. They had three children, two boys and a girl.

By 1951, he had bought a bigger firm. To celebrate, the Templetons took a vacation to Bermuda.

The trip ended tragically. Judith was injured in a motorbike accident and died in the hospital there.

Templeton hired a woman from Winchester to help take care of his children at their home in Englewood, N.J., and continued to build his business.

Then he married his second wife, Irene Butler, in 1958. She was the divorced mother of a little boy who was the best friend of Templeton’s son Christopher.

Irene was a Christian Scientist who believed that physical healing could come through prayer and spiritual communion with God — doctrine that coincided with her husband’s interest in the power of the divine in the earthly realm. They alternated between his church and hers.

By the time Irene died of lung cancer in 1993, Templeton had sold his interest in the globally diverse mutual funds known as the Templeton group and was devoting himself to the foundation and other philanthropic enterprises.

Thinking back to his adolescent missionary ambition, he said, “God gives every one of us many talents. I could see thousands of people had more talent than I did to be a foreign missionary, but nobody else had more talent in helping Americans by investing worldwide.”

But those years of building wealth for himself and others may have been only a prologue to the core mission of his life.

“What I’m doing now is more important than what’s being done in any field, including medicine,” he said.

“Dad is eminently more excited about having people become spiritually wealthy than financially wealthy,” said Jack Jr., a pediatric surgeon from Bryn Mawr, Pa.

“That’s lasting wealth,” said his father. “When people become more wealthy spiritually, it helps them and helps humanity.”

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