Richard Jenrette was one of Raleigh's most accomplished natives. Jenrette, who died recently at age 89, had a remarkably successful business career on Wall Street and as CEO of an insurance company.
But Jenrette had a wide range of interests outside of business, especially in historic homes and furniture, and in keeping up with his friends. Some of those friends will gather Friday from 5:30 to 7 pm at Carolina Country Club on Glenwood Avenue to celebrate his life. All are invited.
Jenrette lived in New York and in several of the houses he preserved, including in Charleston and St. Croix. But when asked where he was from, he always said Raleigh.
He was known as "the last gentleman on Wall Street." In a 2014 interview with Walter magazine, he said: "Human relations – it’s the greatest of all business practices. Simple things like: Always say thank you, don’t criticize people in front of others – those are the keys to success."
By all accounts, he had an unusually full and satisfying life. He was known for his warm friendships and generous spirit. I asked some people who knew Jenrette about how he lived. Here's a summary of what they said:
1. He was interested in other people and maintained friendships. "He was energetic, outgoing, articulate, very attuned to the interests of other people," said friend Sherwood Smith of Raleigh, the former CEO of Carolina Power & Light. "He was easy to be with, easy to talk with, very well informed."
Charlie Winston of Raleigh, a restaurateur and developer who knew Jenrette almost his entire life, said: "He stayed in touch. He was the kind of person who had no enemies. He was liked. He was the perfect gentleman."
On his desk, Jenrette kept a piece of paper with 24 rules to succeed in finance and life. Among them was, "Remember — Life has no blessing like a good friend!"
2. He was curious and creative, in business and in his personal life. Jenrette co-founded an investment bank in 1959. He was a driving force in taking that company public, the first time that had been done on Wall Street. Later, as CEO of Equitable Life, he took that foundering company from a mutual insurance company to one with public stock, another unusual move.
"He was so good at getting people to work together to come up with solutions," said long-time friend Frank Daniels Jr., former publisher of The News & Observer.
Jenrette, a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism graduate, liked to ask questions. His nephew, Buddy Jenrette, who considered his uncle his third parent, said he especially liked to engage younger people in conversation. "Stay informed/KEEP LEARNING!" was one of Jenrette's rules.
3. He was committed to a long-time partner. Jenrette's partner of more than 40 years was a man named Bill Thompson, who died in Durham in 2013. Jenrette didn't discuss his sexual orientation with his friends and family but they knew of Jenrette's relationship with Thompson, which became more open as time went by. In Jenrette's paid obituary, Buddy Jenrette wrote of his uncle's "life friend and partner, William L. Thompson."
"As cultural attitudes changed, so did the openness of the relationship change," said Buddy Jenrette, a physician who grew up in Raleigh and now lives in Charleston. He said his uncle's relationship with Thompson "was an incredibly important part" of the fullness of his life: "They were best friends and life partners before people talked about such a thing." In his list of rules to succeed, Jenrette wrote: "It helps to have someone to love who loves you."