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Billionaire Conservative Donor David Koch Dies At Age 79

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Phelam M. Ebenhack/AP
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NPR

David Koch, who with his older brother Charles was both celebrated and demonized for transforming American politics by pouring their riches into conservative causes, died Friday at 79.

The cause of death was not disclosed, but Wichita-based Koch Industries said Koch, who lived in New York City, had contended for years with various illnesses, including prostate cancer.

"It is with a heavy heart that I now must inform you of David's death," Charles Koch said in a statement. He noted his brother's "giant personality and passion for life" and says he will be "greatly missed, but never forgotten."

David Koch retired as executive vice president and board member for Koch Industries in 2018 because of health problems. He also stepped aside from his political activities.

In a tweet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called David Koch "a compassionate philanthropist, successful businessman and a proud American." Pompeo previously was a congressman from Wichita.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas commended Koch's "dedication to the future success of our country."

"From criminal justice reform and medical research, to education and the arts, David Koch was a champion for the causes and issues he cared about," Moran said in a statement, "and his philanthropic work will benefit generations of Kansans to come."

A chemical engineer by training, David Koch was an executive in the family-run conglomerate, the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential candidate in 1980 and a major benefactor of educational, medical and cultural organizations. Koch Industries says he donated nearly $1.3 billion to charitable causes over his lifetime.

But he and his brother became best known for building a political network in support of conservative and libertarian causes and candidates.

The brothers in 2004 founded the anti-tax, small-government group Americans for Prosperity, which continues to be one of the most powerful conservative organizations in U.S. politics.

"I was taught from a young age that involvement in the public discourse is a civic duty," David Koch wrote in a 2012 op-ed in the New York Post. "Each of us has a right indeed, a responsibility, at times to make his or her views known to the larger community in order to better form it as a whole. While we may not always get what we want, the exchange of ideas betters the nation in the process."

While lionized on the right, the Koch brothers have been vilified by Democrats, whom they often targeted.

The Kochs invested heavily in fighting President Barack Obama's health care overhaul; they fought to bring conservative voices to college campuses; and they developed a nationwide grassroots network pushing conservative causes and candidates at the state and national levels.

But the brothers did not support Donald Trump's bid for president in 2016. And Charles criticized his spending plan and trade policies.

Trump responded on Twitter that the Koch brothers "were a total joke in real Republican circles" and were "two nice guys with bad ideas."

David Koch was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992, a year after surviving a commercial airplane crash in Los Angeles. He battled the disease the rest of his life.

"Twenty-seven years ago, David was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and given a grim prognosis of a few years to live," Charles Koch said in a statement. "David liked to say that a combination of brilliant doctors, state-of-the-art medications and his own stubbornness kept the cancer at bay.

"We can all be grateful that it did, because he was able to touch so many more lives as a result."

He told a reporter following the 2012 Republican convention that he was thinking about his legacy.

"I like to engage where my part makes a difference," he told The Weekly Standard. "I have a point of view. When I pass on, I want people to say he did a lot of good things, he made a real difference, he saved a lot of lives in cancer research."

David Koch donated $100 million in 2007 to create a cancer research institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his alma mater. He also gave millions to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the M.D. Anderson Cancer in Houston and other institutions.

The Lincoln Center theater that houses the New York City Ballet became the David H. Koch Theater in 2008 after he gave $100 million. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History opened a wing in his name dedicated to the story of human evolution after he contributed $15 million.

He also contributed to the Mary R. Koch Arts Center, or Mark Arts, in Wichita. The gallery and studio is named for his mother.

"He may have been, may have been one of the most generous business people in this country," said Nestor Weigand, CEO of the J.P. Weigand real estate firm in Wichita.

He recalls when Koch was asked for a contribution to build a science center at the elite high school he attended in Massachusetts. The project came in $30 million over budget.

“And he just said yep, I’ll do it," Weigand says. "He went right ahead with what his commitment was. And that’s the way he was with everything.”

Koch joined Koch Industries in 1970 and served on its board.

Co-founded by his father, Fred, the company has holdings in oil refineries, paper mills, fertilizer plants, cattle ranches and other ventures. It is now one of the largest private companies in the U.S., employing 130,000 people worldwide, and about 3,500 in Kansas.

David Koch also served as CEO of Koch Chemical Technology Group LLC, a Koch subsidiary. 

Charles and David Koch, each with an estimated net worth of $50.5 billion, were tied for 11th place in 2019 on the Forbes 500 list of the nation's richest men.

David Koch is survived by his wife, Julia Flesher, and their three children. Also his oldest brother Frederick and twin brother, Bill.

Contributing: Associated Press, NPR.