With An Entrepreneur's Energy, Americares' Bob Macauley Brings Help to the World's Needy

updated 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon, a U.S. Air Force plane carrying Vietnamese orphans to homes in the U.S. crashed, killing a third of its young passengers. Robert Macauley, a Connecticut businessman who had been involved in aiding children there, knew it was essential to get the survivors out of the war-torn country immediately. He dashed off a check to Pan Am for $251,000 so that a chartered plane could fly to the rescue. By the time the check bounced, the children were safe in California. Ultimately, Macauley was forced to remortgage his New Canaan home to pay the airline, but it seemed to him a fair price. "So they got my house," he says now. "Big deal—I got it back. The important thing was, we got those kids out"

In the years since then, Macauley, now 65, has expanded his philanthropic efforts a hundredfold—without toning down his act. When it comes to saving lives, Bob Macauley moves fast moves big and ignores any pesky details that get in his way. Blessed with ample funds, a genius for begging and plenty of friends in high places, he has seen to it that AmeriCares—the foundation he started in 1982—can get help to the needy anywhere in the world. "When we decide to do something, we just do it," says Macauley, who routinely puts in 18-hour days at AmeriCares' New Canaan offices. "Nobody else can do that, because they all have committees and bureaucracies. I'll just call everybody in, and in 60 seconds we're ready to go."

Since its inception, AmeriCares has supplied more than $255 million in medicine, pharmaceutical equipment and food to 40 countries. Foundation staffers were on the scene after the Bhopal chemical spill in 1984, after the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. AmeriCares sent 22,000 toys to the children of Beirut for Christmas in 1986 and was the first private group to get supplies to Armenia following December's earthquake. It is difficult to name one troubled corner of the world that has not benefited from Macauley's damn-the-torpedoes generosity.

Sometimes AmeriCares has planes in the air long before the countries in need are prepared to receive them. After the earthquake in El Salvador in 1986, no landing permits were being issued for the country's main airport. "It was a bureaucratic screwup," says Macauley. He called a pilot friend who lived in San Salvador and persuaded him to go to the airport tower and talk the AmeriCares plane down himself. "We unloaded 75,000 pounds of medicine," Macauley says, "and made the trip six more times."

Not surprisingly, many who know Bob Macauley describe him as a saint. AmeriCares' 60 staffers, 40 of whom are volunteers, revere him. His friends—among them George Bush, a buddy from Andover and Yale—are in awe. "The man is driven by his zeal to help people," says former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Simon, another intimate. "He ought to be canonized while he's still alive."

Macauley shrugs off such talk. "I just believe what Albert Schweitzer said, that you're not in this world alone, your brothers are here too," he says. Recently, he saw a graphic TV news report on famine victims in the Sudan. "How can you look at a film like that and not do something?" asks Macauley, whose group has dispatched $5 million worth of medicine to the area. "When I watch that, I see my own kids starving." It is perhaps as simple as that: To Macauley, any suffering, however distant, feels unbearably close to home.

Macauley's sense of solidarity with those less fortunate took root when he was a child. His father, Milton, was a well-to-do Greenwich, Conn., paper broker; his mother, Ella, a housewife heavily involved in an overseas foster-parents program. Bob and his two sisters were instructed to send their old clothes and part of their allowances to foster siblings in Poland and Latvia. "My mother was a crusader," Macauley says. "I was always socially conscious."

He did not, however, always act that way. At 17, Macauley dropped out of Andover, joined the Air Force and entered what his wife, Leila, now 67, refers to as his "self-interest phase." He drifted to Miami after flying cargo planes in World War II, drank to excess and made a living playing the piano in beer joints. He sobered up long enough to attend Yale, where he earned a B.A. in international relations, but after graduation he resumed his hedonistic life-style. "The only thing I knew how to do was play the piano, so I went to Europe and played golf and tennis all day and the piano at night."

It was during Macauley's carefree period that he first met Leila Lindgren, a young teacher and war widow with an infant son. Macauley asked for her hand the night they met. Smitten herself but wary of Bob's hard-living ways, Leila declined—for the moment. "He was very impetuous and not very stable," she says. The two kept in touch, however. Leila remarried and had a daughter, Mindy (now 27 and a lawyer); Bob stopped drifting and built a lucrative career as a salesman for a New York paper company. He finally quit drinking in 1964 ("I wasn't an alcoholic, but close," he says), and in 1965 Leila, twice widowed, finally accepted his 20-year-old proposal.

Family life, Macauley says, steadied him and also helped him focus the vague charitable urges he had retained from childhood. In 1969 Macauley "really got into the philanthropic world," as he puts it. After reading a newspaper about the plight of Vietnam war orphans, he took the $5,000 he had earmarked for a new car and, after a unanimous family vote, sent it to the orphans instead. Soon he was persuading his friends to help out, and the Shoeshine Foundation (named after the orphans' method of earning pocket money) was established to shelter war orphans.

Macauley's professional ambitions escalated after his marriage as well. In 1973, on the strength of his expertise in the paper business, he managed to borrow $50 million and established the Virginia Fibre Company in Amherst, Va. The company flourished, and by the time Macauley dreamed up AmeriCares in 1982, he was in a position to pledge roughly 10 percent of the privately held company's pretax income to charity work. To this day, Macauley's company is the foundation's primary donor. Last year, Virginia Fibre kicked in $2.4 million.

Macauley's first AmeriCares mission came about by accident—or perhaps by divine intervention. In 1981 Pope John Paul II heard about Macauley's fund-raising efforts for Covenant House, a shelter for runaways in New York City. He summoned Macauley to a private meeting and asked for help getting medical supplies to Poland, which was then under martial law. "I was in awe of him," Macauley says. "So I said, 'Certainly, Your Holiness.' What else could I say—'No, Pope?' "

He started by soliciting two pharmacies near his home—and had $21 worth of medicine after a full day's begging. Then his ace salesmanship and his social ties kicked in. He explained his predicament to two influential friends, Bill Simon and W.R. Grace's CEO Peter Grace. Over dinner, the trio determined that they knew people at the top levels at nearly all of the nation's 50 largest pharmaceutical companies. In no time, they had $1.5 million worth of medicine donated. AmeriCares was in full swing.

Today, Macauley rarely accompanies his staffers on their missions of mercy. He feels most valuable staying by the phones. Leila, who runs Friends of Children, a separate charitable organization, is accustomed to calls in the middle of the night at both their New Canaan home and their vacation retreat in Boca Raton, Fla. Usually the calls are cries for help, but not always. When Macauley was hospitalized several years ago after contracting a disease in Africa, a hospital staffer summoned him to the phone. "There's some old bag who says she's Mother Teresa," she informed him. Mother Teresa it was, calling to wish her old friend happy birthday.

Still, Macauley admits his hard-charging charity has exacted a price. "Once, when the kids were little, our nurse called to say I'd better come home quick," he remembers. "She said, 'I hate to tell you this, but your son is now calling the carpenter Daddy.' " He must have done something right, though. That son, Bob Jr., 22, is now headed for medical school and plans to become a missionary. "We taught our children that way," Macauley says, with obvious pride. "I woke Bob up in the middle of the night and sent him down to Ecuador to pull bodies out of the mud."

Lately, Leila has been urging her husband to slow his pace. She worries about his smoking and about the arthritis that is worsening by the day. "If you don't live," she points out, "you can't help anybody." In Florida, before he goes to Mass (which he does each day, though he was raised an Episcopalian and says he's not certain God exists), Macauley rides his bicycle. "If I had it all to do over again, I'd cut down to 50 or 60 hours a week," he concedes. "You can lose sight of your priorities."

But then the phone rings, and you can almost see the adrenaline start to flow. "Maybe 4 million people are alive in this world through what we've done." Macauley says. "But we can be much bigger. You have no idea what you can get out of people if you have faith in them. There's no limit to where we can go."

—Kim Hubbard, Toby Kahn in New Canaan

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