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Remembering Sir John Templeton

A writer recalls a visit to the great contrarian investor as friends gather to celebrate his 96th birthday.

By Jessi Hempel, writer
Last Updated: November 28, 2008: 10:24 AM ET

Sir John Templeton

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- If Sir John Templeton were alive today, he'd probably be snatching up stock. The billionaire investor made his biggest gains during the 20th century's bleakest moments. His credo: "The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy."

Templeton passed away in July, and on Nov. 29, - his 96th birthday - friends and family will gather to remember him at the Christ Church Cathedral in Nassau, where he lived for the last half of his life.

Sir John, as the Queen knighted him and his friends called him, launched the Templeton Growth Fund in 1954 and racked up gains of 15% annually over the 39 years that followed. After selling the fund to the Franklin Group in 1992 for $440 million, he launched a second career in philanthropy. He seeded a $1.5 billion endowment to support the scientific pursuit of spirituality, seeking answers to questions like "Does prayer cure illness?"

This question and others intrigued me, and so three years ago while writing for another publication, I flew down to the Bahamas to pay him a visit. According to his assistant, I was the last reporter to have an audience with him.

Sir John lived in a small box-like home that looked as if it had been plucked directly from antebellum Tennessee and dropped atop a golf course. Paint flaked from the pillars. The modest kitchen still had its original 1969 countertops and cabinets. And when I rang the bell, Sir John himself answered the door, greeting me warmly with the hint of a Southern drawl as he invited me in.

A contrarian to the end, Sir John made a career out of swimming against the tide. On the eve of World War II, when a nervous nation was selling stocks, Templeton borrowed $10,000 from a friend and bought a share in every stock on both New York exchanges worth less than a dollar. Only four of the 104 companies went out of business. After the war, he invested in Japan, and just as everyone else got into the market, he got out. In 1987 when the market crashed, Templeton went on a buying spree.

This unflappable spirit followed him into his second career as a philanthropist. We discussed this in his living room one afternoon. Along the back wall, French doors offered a view down to the golf course, the posh Lyford Cay Club and the sea beyond. Until recently, he'd taken a brisk power walk in the ocean each afternoon, wading out about three feet into the water and wearing a button-down dress shirt and a hat to protect him from the sun. At 92, he'd begun to use his afternoons for light naps, but his thinking continued to be sharp. We sat just inside, sipping black coffee from dainty yellow saucers while he explained his thoughts on giving. "What I'm financing is humility," he told me.

His foundation had a somewhat controversial goal: he wanted to find the scientific proof for faith. A devout Presbyterian, he'd begun each day with prayer at the Templeton Funds office, but he also had a strong appreciation for the numbers-driven logic of investing. His charitable funds have been used for projects that investigate, for example, the impact that regular church attendance has on blood pressure. And the $1.5 million Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities has been awarded to everyone from Mother Teresa to physicist Freeman J. Dyson.

Even then, Sir John took an active role in grant making. Each morning, he drove his four-door Kia Opirus - which he told me had the same qualities as a high-end German luxury car but was a good deal cheaper - a few blocks down to his office, where he sat on a butterfly-upholstered couch to review proposals and take notes. He often made his own photocopies. When I called him at the office, he sometimes answered the phone himself. And he sent a steady stream of faxes - sometimes six in a day - bearing advice to his son, a former pediatric surgeon who serves as president of the foundation at its headquarters in Conshohocken, Penn.

As much as Sir John was gifted at picking stocks that garnered grand returns, he was uninterested in the fruits of his economic grains. He always flew coach. He abhorred debt and was a proponent of thrift - during the first years of his career, he saved 50 cents of every dollar he earned. He had a clear vision for his life, and described it this way: "To open people's minds so no one will be so conceited that they think they have the total truth. They should be eager to learn, to listen, to research and not to confine, to hurt, to kill, those who disagree with them."

His contrarian opinions on all matters - economic and spiritual - are greatly missed in these deeply unsettling times. To top of page

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