William E. Simon

He was U.S. treasury secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford and later made his fortune in leveraged buyouts. Like Andrew Carnegie, he wants to give away his wealth to good causes before he dies. He recently spoke to Register correspondent John Burger in New York.

John Burger: What's it like being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, and why did you become one?

William Simon: Back when I was too poor to give money, I became involved in many organizations such as Covenant House. … I went once or twice a week, and every Christmas I'd bring gifts to the children there. When I became successful, I started to give money to charity.

The idea of giving money is important, and if you pay as much attention to your charitable giving as you do to your investments, you ought to do very well. I don't just write a check; when I provide scholarships, I want to know about the children, keep track of them, become part of the family.

So it came natural to me to become a eucharistic minister. A Dame of Malta named Cissy Ix invited me in 1990 to go with her to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, and I found something I absolutely love. To go and pray and be with people and give them holy Communion is the most wonderful thing I've ever done. It's absolutely inspiring. I go at least once a week to a hospital in New York or New Jersey, and also in California when I'm there.

Besides bringing Communion to patients, what else do you do with them?

You go in and you pray. I bring Lourdes water, I bring rosary beads that are blessed at Lourdes and put Lourdes water on them. Some are quite ill. I try to make them feel better, show them somebody cares, as I did with AIDS patients for many years at Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in Harlem.

Tell me about some of the people you've ministered to.

At Cardinal Cooke, there were people ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s. Science has come up with new drugs that prolong life for AIDS patients, and some became very good friends. They really wanted God — and [continue to] really want God. It's the same thing at Sloan-Kettering. You find very few atheists in a place like that. They want to hear about God; they want to hear about heaven. And they want to hear about baseball and football games.

I was surprised that I was recognized by an awful lot of people after all these years since I've been secretary of the [U.S.] Treasury. They want to hear what it was like to be in government, and I sometimes give them $2 bills that I signed. I also stay in touch with widows and see if they need any help.

Have you witnessed any conversions because of your visits or because of the Eucharist?

People with AIDS are sometimes very angry. They don't want anything to do with you. So you say, “Look, I'm here to visit. What can I do for you? I can give you Communion, but if you don't want it, fine.” After a few visits, they find out you're not such a bad fellow.

I tell them about Lourdes, how I go every year. They love to hear stories like that. They've got problems; life isn't so fine. I tell them neither is mine. You leave there and you're exhausted but so satisfied that you can truly help human beings who are going through a terrible trial. And they're scared, but you remind them that we're all going to die, it's just a matter of when. You tell them, “You're lucky to know when, so you can make preparations.”

Eventually, you find them becoming very friendly. They want to talk about all sorts of things. They know you're a person of God, and you can make them feel better, make them laugh, get them some ice cream, whatever. They're all human beings. This is what the corporal works of mercy are all about.

Tell me about some of the charities you support and why you support them.

I support schools, first and foremost. I like the idea of helping to make literate people out of children who otherwise would grow up being semiliterate. If we want to give them an equal footing in society, we have to give them a good education.

We never give a grant and just walk away. We make sure it's used properly. We make sure the money is not wasted. And we don't just give someone a scholarship for one year but for two or three years. But they have to maintain a certain grade average.

The John M. Olin Foundation supports free enterprise, which is at the foundation of everything I do. [Philanthropist Andrew] Carnegie [1835-1919] believed we have to help people help themselves: You give heart, inspiration and support to people who need it. A lot of the people we give scholarships to are in grammar and high school because if they never get through high school they'll never get to college. Usually, it's a family with a single mother, who can't afford to send her children to a good school. The doorman at my building has six or seven adopted kids, and he sends them all to Catholic schools.

He has to work three jobs to afford it, so I help him. He's taken the kids who are the least wanted, and he'll raise them, teach them about the faith.

I don't just focus on people of the Catholic faith, however. I want to help human beings. I also work with the Olympics, for example, and we help people who are training to be athletes.

As a eucharistic minister, what do you think of the increase in eucharistic devotion in the Church?

It's absolutely wonderful. I live part time in [New York] … half a block from St. Vincent Ferrer. At St. Agnes, a couple of blocks from my office, there's Mass every half-hour [and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every afternoon]. There's always a considerable amount of people there. I see more people doing the Stations of the Cross. Generally, there's a tremendous resurgence of religion.

What role does prayer have in your life? Is it more important to you today than in the past?

Absolutely. I'm a daily communicant, and I try to say the rosary every day. I don't need many hours of sleep, so I wake up at 3 or 4 every morning. It's nice and quiet then.

Tell me about some of the influences on your life and faith development.

I grew up in Paterson, N.J., and went to Catholic schools in the slums of Jersey. I lived uptown, the son of a once well-to-do family. We went to Mass together every Sunday, as families did then. I'm still very close to the nuns. We just celebrated the 90th birthday of a nun who taught me in the fourth grade. She's as sharp today as ever and has a great sense of humor.

Going to Mass with the family every single Sunday, and going to Catholic schools in a day when nuns were disciplinarians and you did all sorts of things like going to church and singing in the chorus that were part of the curriculum, not extra — the faith just became a part of you. That doesn't mean I was always devout.

Going through the teen years, I'd miss Mass sometimes; I'd get pretty lax. But I never felt good about it. It's kind of like saying the rosary. Some days you're better than others, like baseball. But if you really work at it, you're a happy fellow.

My religion has become very important in my life. That doesn't mean I don't go to football games; I do. It doesn't mean I don't go to movies; I do. But helping people is the most satisfying thing to me.

I think my experiences in the hospitals and going to Haiti with the Knights of Malta, working with the poor down there, tended to bring me even closer to God.

Andrew Carnegie, in The Gospel of Wealth, [argued] that anyone who died with money was damned, that he lived a fruitless life. So he gave it away. Not that I'll be anything like he ever was, but between the Olin Foundation, the Simon Foundation and the Templeton Foundation, there's a lot of money that will be given away. But it's given away with great care and attention; it's done properly.

What was it like being a Catholic in public service? Were you able to bring Christ to the workplace or to public policy?

You'd be surprised [how many] people in government [are] Catholic. You [have] trouble getting to Church on Sunday because you work seven days a week. You [are] preoccupied, and you [are] always traveling. But faith becomes inculcated into your mind and body, and you just try to be a Christian at all times, whether you're dealing with the Arabs or the French or the British.

What do you think of the presidential field as we go into next year's election?

I pay very little attention to it. It's all idle speculation. Anyone who is a front-runner at this stage in the game has never become the nominee.

What do you think about New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's opposition to the Brooklyn Museum's exhibit that included an image of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung?

He's absolutely right. The museum is crazy, and the trustees are worse. How they allow that, I don't know. When the Senate votes 95-0 to remove federal funds, and the mayor says, “Remove city funds,” they ought to think twice. What they're doing is despicable. And don't tell me it's art. It's nothing but thinly veiled pornography. It's disgusting and debasing. If they persist, they ought to close the museum down. I'm not talking simply from a Catholic point of view. Whatever the religious symbol it is, it's desecration of religion.