July 9, 2008; Page A14
On the eve of World War II, John Templeton bought stock in 104 companies selling at $1 a share or less. Only a few turned out to be worthless, while in time the rest turned large profits. Templeton went on to become one of the world's great fund managers by investing at what he called "points of maximum pessimism."
Yet Templeton, who died yesterday at age 95, was never himself a pessimist. As an investor, he always had confidence his picks would improve over the long term. Appropriately, the same "enthusiasm for progress," as he put it, also made him one of the world's great philanthropists. Life's spiritual dimensions were his abiding inspiration.
In 1972 he founded the Templeton Prize, which recognizes achievement that enriches religious experience. Templeton was unhappy that the Nobel Prize excluded faith, so he ensured the honor always had a higher cash prize (now about $1.6 million). Mother Teresa was the first recipient; others include Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Michael Novak and in recent years a distinguished roster of physicists and philosophers. A devout Presbyterian, Templeton believed "that God is vastly greater than human beings can comprehend," and sought to use his wealth to help reconcile science and religion. He thought that the one deepened the other.
To that end, he established the Templeton Foundation, which supports academic research in fields like cognitive science and evolutionary biology, as well as work related to the origin and nature of spirituality. Templeton also knew that many such modern philanthropies tend to begin with good intentions and then slide away from donor intent, so he established multiple checks to ensure that his financial legacy will stay true to his vision long after he was gone.
The Templeton Foundation now has a $1.5 billion endowment and awards some $70 million every year. He was indeed an optimistic investor for the long term.