Seven people died on Independence Day as their helicopter plunged into the Bahamian sea. The remains of the victims have been recovered. The cause of the crash is unknown.
The spot headlines flash only what the copy editors believe to be the most eye-catching detail: “Billionaire from West Virginia Dies.” “Coal Tycoon Dead.”
The mining magnate was Chris Cline. His co-passengers were his daughter, her three friends, a pal from back home and the British-born pilot. They perished on their way from Cline’s private island home on Big Grand Cay to a mainland hospital, rushing for treatment of his daughter’s emergent illness, according to newspaper accounts.
In a few seconds, they were gone. The lives of their families are indelibly marked and injured beyond full repair. They will never be the same.
Their deaths are tragic at their foundation. “His death is also sad at many levels,” said a woman who knew him well.
Cline, 61, was an innovator in American coal production. He came from what passes for the middle class in the coalfields. At 22, Cline bought out his father’s struggling contract mining business and built himself a coal empire on his ability to see value where others did not. He was a contrarian. Cline dug into high-sulfur Illinois coal reserves after buying them on the cheap. He heavily invested in Nova Scotia’s tricky, controversial legacy coal mining, to much criticism of environmental and political leftists.
Like many West Virginia ex-pats, Cline lived in the income-tax-free zone of Florida. He kept a large home in Beckley to which he often returned.
He was a budding philanthropist in his home state and beyond, but especially in West Virginia, according to his pattern of giving.
His brother, Greg, told The Palm Beach Post that his brother “gave to anybody that needed anything ... . He always knew what to do.” It appears that Cline helped many students attend college.
His charitable practices disclose that he was devoted to sports and kids. He gave heavily to the Marshall University athletics program. Chuck Landon of The Herald-Dispatch reported that Cline underwrote the installation of the buffalo statuary at the school at a cost of $1.2 million.
His money largely paid for the sports facility, including eight soccer fields, named for his later father. The Cline Family Foundation recently pledged $10 million for the Beckley YMCA. The foundation, based in Florida, gave to Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boy Scouts of America and Save the Children.
A detail of Cline that captured my attention was that he served on a mission trip to Haiti. Later, he gave $75,000 to an orphanage in that poorest of countries.
That Cline volunteered his time, which most would have rated as invaluable, to a mission trip — one of the great traditions of American Evangelicalism — is a mark of his public character. I have no idea whether Cline was a man of faith, but it doesn’t matter. I imagine that the man of extraordinary wealth and acumen believed that his rich life, though richly lived, also obliged him to help others who possessed little but their souls and a few scraps of daily bread.
“He wanted to make more because he wanted to do more good,” The Palm Beach Post quoted a friend of Cline’s.
High-stakes philanthropy, the kind embodied by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, comparatively is a rare thing in West Virginia.
It would be little surprise to most that our state is ranked very low among the states in foundation assets available for helping schools, food banks, the arts, hospitals and other charitable organizations.
West Virginia, collectively, has $1.4 billion in charitable foundation assets. That sounds impressive, except that it ranks behind even Mississippi in that measure. Oklahoma has $15 billion in foundation assets. Kansas and Wyoming have $3.7 billion and $1.7 billion, respectively.
What is it about rich people and their relationship with West Virginia that does not inspire more philanthropy for its beleaguered people? Is the question even a fair one?
According to Forbes, Cline was the 1,281st richest person in the world. The ultra-wealthy, especially self-made ones, often figure out that the marginal utility of acquiring yet-another billion dollars, or a few hundred million, is low compared to the joys of enriching or sustaining the least fortunate. It is more satisfying to spend money on others than to buy another archipelago.
Cline set up a private foundation with a fraction of his wealth. In 2017, the foundation reported assets of $12.4 million, following a few large gifts made in the prior year.
The heart of a man who tends to Haitian orphans cannot but be changed in the experience. Remarkable for his success in the arenas of business, Cline should be remembered as much for beginning to toil in the fields of compassion.
My instinct is that Cline, over time, would have built up his foundation because, truly, “he wanted to do more good.” Given Cline’s drive, his competitiveness, I imagine that he was going to thrive in philanthropy, exceeding all precedent.