Everyone likes a mystery, especially those about the rich. My interest was piqued while reading “A Big Bet for Change in America’s Heartland,” an article by Drew Lindsay in the “Chronicle of Philanthropy.” The article’s subject is David Gundlach, the enigmatic donor who left close to $150 million to his hometown’s community foundation in Elkhart, Indiana. I began to read articles about his life – what little that was known about it. In fact, it is less of a true mystery than it is a story of an unfinished quest in the life of a boy from a small town becoming rich after the sale of his company.
This line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” reminds me of David’s life: “They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.”
It was as if David Gundlach studied and read about what people do when they are rich, and then mimicked it. But aside from his natural instincts for becoming successful in business, he seemed to have no natural instincts for what to do once he became wealthy. He copied meticulously the behaviors of wealthy people, hosting extravagant social affairs to win their favor and buying multimillion dollar properties near exclusive clubs in anticipation he would be invited to join. He gave to charities favored by royalty and celebrities hoping to be included in their inner ring. He bought 11 homes around the world complete with staff but hardly lived in them. He bought expensive cars (15 of them), hundreds of pieces of art, and a Cessna Citation X, hopping around the world – by himself. But he never developed the social ease of wealth. He was awkward and without the poise of one accustomed to great wealth.
Being alone was a pattern. He was almost always completely by himself, except for eating dinner with his business partner while they built the company that eventually made Gundlach wealthy. The harder he tried to impress, the less people were drawn to him. The more he bought to attract others, the more isolated he became. When he planned a celebration for the deal that sold his company – ordering the best of everything for his employees and partners – he arrived at the party to find the room nearly empty. In a world where the rich are always sought after, David Gundlach managed to reverse the pattern.
I also discovered Gundlach funded and co-produced one of my favorite Robert Duvall films, “Get Low.” The film is the story of Felix Bush, a misunderstood recluse who had managed to slip through the web of relationships that make our lives part of a larger community. Duvall’s character arranged his own elaborate funeral (while still living) because he wanted to explain himself to the town that rejected him and wanted “everyone to come who has a story to tell about me.” It is the story of someone who wants desperately to explain his life and to hear through others that his own life had meaning.
David Gundlach was not greedy or cruel. He never intentionally hurt anyone or tried to take what was not his, nor did he ever use his wealth to take advantage of others. He was kind and generous to his mother and visited her frequently, but little evidence of his life remained other than what would be sold to the next owners.
In some ways, it should not be a surprise that he left everything with no instructions or limitations to his home town of Elkhart. He used his money while he had it and turned it loose completely at the end. There were no memorials or endowed chairs or institutions to perpetuate his memory. He made no stipulations to rule from the grave. Unlike so many, he had not become attached to his money. It was enough for Gundlach just to return home, where he is now buried. As he said, “When I’m around people from Elkhart I like myself better.”
Perhaps that was his quest. Before his unexpected and sudden death at 56 he began to talk about happiness and purpose in life. The man who had, like Jay Gatsby, flashed his wealth to be noticed was beginning to ask more serious questions about his life. It was not enough to be noticed. The need was to be known.
I think T.S. Eliot said it best:
“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I pray the community foundation is able to give him through the use of his gift what he never had in his life – a sense of belonging. A reason for having lived. A legacy that cannot be sold to the next owner. And, perhaps, it will be there as well where David Gundlach will be known for the first time.