‘A man who squarely loves his hometown’: One of Salisbury’s greatest benefactors, Julian Robertson, turns 90

Published 12:01 am Sunday, June 26, 2022

SALISBURY —  In a last-gasp effort to find enough funding to preserve a patch of wooded land in Spencer, Jason Walser in November 2010 dropped an envelope in the mail.

The letter was addressed to Julian H. Robertson Jr., a Salisbury native whose success as a Wall Street hedge fund manager has made him one of the world’s wealthiest people.

Walser, then executive director of Three Rivers Land Trust, was hoping Robertson would support the effort financially out of fondness for his childhood friend Fred Stanback, for whom the forest park is now named.

Weeks passed. Walser heard nothing.

“I had sort of given up,” he said.

Then one December day, his phone rang. On the other was Robertson, calling from an airport in New Zealand. A frequent visitor to the country where he’s an honorary knight, Robertson hadn’t received the letter for some time since it had to be forwarded from his New York office.

“He called me in a really good mood and thanked me for the opportunity to help honor Fred,” Walser said.

Almost immediately, Robertson pledged his financial support of the project — quickly providing half of what was needed and making the project viable.

“This kind man who loves this community and believes in his friends was willing to take a chance on me, a person he’s never met, based on a letter I sent,” Walser said.

The phone call was the first between the two men, but it hasn’t been the last.

Since 2017, Walser has served as executive director of the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation. Established by Robertson in 1997 with an initial gift of $18 million, the foundation — created and named in honor of his parents — has dispersed millions of dollars to an extensive list of local causes and nonprofit organizations.

On Saturday, one of Salisbury’s most prominent and generous benefactors celebrated his 90th birthday. He enjoyed the day surrounded by family in New York.

Robertson, who spent two years as an officer in the Navy, has lived in the city where he made his fortune for most of his life. But he’s always spoken with pride to strangers and friends alike about his upbringing in Salisbury.

Wyndham Robertson, Julian’s younger sister, remembers their childhood as idyllic — despite growing up during the Great Depression and then a world war.

“We all thought it was fabulous,” said Wyndham, who forged her own legacy as a barrier-breaking journalist. “Even at the time, I don’t think we realized how great it was.”

Julian has said as much publicly many times. In a 2013 interview with OneWire, he described Salisbury as a “wonderful place to grow up,” saying that “everybody should be required to grow up in a small town.”

Five years older than Wyndham and three years older than their sister Blanche, who passed away last year, Julian was the “apple of our mother’s eye,” remembers Wyndham. Julian’s charm wasn’t lost on others, either.

“In Latin class, if he didn’t know what the word was or the ending, he would just make one up,” Wyndham said. “He was the delight of the entire class.”

When World War II forced everyone in America to make more with less, Julian raised chickens and sold their eggs. He planted and maintained a “Victory garden.”

It’s evident Julian also spent time watching — and learning from — his parents.

His father, Julian H. Robertson Sr., was a respected textile executive who oversaw several facilities, including the N.C. Finishing Company. His mother, Blanche, helped lead the charge to preserve Salisbury’s past as a founding member of the Historic Salisbury Foundation. Wyndham remembers her father initially being skeptical of her mother’s efforts to raise money to physically move a historic home to ensure its survival.

“I think she turned out to be right about that: preserving the old stuff. Because I wonder if historic preservation isn’t kind of an engine to the economy in Salisbury,” Wyndham said. “It’s one of the things that makes people want to live here.”

Former Salisbury Post Publisher Jim Hurley is quoted in a newspaper article as saying the elder Mr. Robertson was responsible for providing “more jobs for more people for more years than any other person” in Rowan County during the 20th century. Hurley described Blanche as “our cultural and social leader.”

It was in their memory, and in the same spirit with which they gave to Salisbury and Rowan County, that Julian established the foundation bearing their name on Oct. 12, 1997.

“Dad always talked about giving back because he learned it from his parents and it was part of the general Salisbury community at the time,” Julian’s son Alex Robertson said. “Everyone was involved in everything back then, he said.”

Former Salisbury Mayor Margaret Kluttz remembers the day the foundation launched. She’d heard rumblings that Julian was planning to start the organization, and he’d even alluded to it when he met with Kluttz in New York to discuss Gateway Park, which is located at the corner of East Innes and Depot streets. Julian and his wife Josie, who died in 2010, were benefactors of the park’s creation.

But it wasn’t until the morning of the park’s dedication that Julian pulled Kluttz aside and told her he was going to make the big announcement. And he asked her to proclaim the initial gift of $16 million.

“By the time we got the check a week or two weeks later, it had already grown to $18 million,” she said.

Since then, the foundation has awarded more than $40 million in grants to 160 organizations and agencies.

“There’s no way to properly say the impact throughout this community and the legs it’s given to a whole lot of worthwhile causes,” said Kluttz, past chair of the foundation’s board of directors. “It’s had a profound impact. And hopefully will for years to come.”

Kluttz said it’s difficult to imagine a Salisbury devoid of Julian’s generosity.

“I think (he’s) allowed a small town to continue to grow and be very proud of itself and have amenities that larger communities have and to thrive,” she said.

One of the foundation’s most recent gifts is Bell Tower Green park, downtown’s new jewel. The park, almost always brimming with the sounds of children playing and people chatting on benches, at tables and on the grassy green, has already hosted numerous festivals and community events since it opened last year.

Many donors made the park possible, but it was the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation that took the original risk of purchasing the land from the Maxwell Chambers Trust in 2016.

“We didn’t know if the community would rally around it or not,” Wyndham said. “I didn’t think of us as being in the business of taking risks. I thought we were just giving money away, but the local people on the board saw the promise. And of course, they were so right.”

Although she lives in Chapel Hill, Wyndham doesn’t miss an opportunity to visit Bell Tower Green. The park’s water wall even served as the backdrop for her Christmas card last year.

Julian hasn’t visited Salisbury since 2019, but he keeps the spirit of Salisbury with him. He’s especially fond of his partial alma mater Salisbury High School, which was Boyden High School when he attended. He was only there for two years, Wyndham said, before his parents sent him to Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Still, he’s an ardent supporter of the Hornets.

“It’s so funny that this man who is a titan of Wall Street just loves wearing his Salisbury Hornets baseball cap, which he does,” Walser said. “He hasn’t forgotten from whence he came.”

Julian is a subscriber to Salisbury The Magazine, receiving the publication in New York.

“At the end of the day, he’s a man who squarely loves his hometown,” Walser said.

Julian has given away millions of dollars in Salisbury, but his philanthropic efforts extend far behind his hometown. A signer of the giving pledge, a campaign to encourage the extremely wealthy to contribute money to charitable causes, Julian has donated millions more to support various other causes, from education to the environment to healthcare.

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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