Robert W. Wilson’s generosity transformed the Institute for Justice and for that we will always be enormously grateful. Bob was one of IJ’s earliest supporters. I would have lunch with him several times each year and while he was always enthused about our work, he refused to give us more than $35,000 each year. But he always said there would be more when the time was right. That time came in 2008, and IJ made the most of it.
Bob issued a challenge grant of $5 million in 2008 that generated an additional $10 million from other donors. Bob was so pleased with what IJ was able to do as a result of that increased support that he doubled down with a new $10 million challenge. That in turn generated $20 million in support. During the five years of Bob’s challenge grants, IJ was able to significantly expand our staff and programs. As a result we filed and won more cases than ever before, becoming the national law firm for liberty. His generosity laid the foundation for the exciting activities you will see unfold in the next several years.
Bob was a very successful Wall Street investor who retired in 1986. He decided to give away his considerable wealth before he died. His philanthropy was transformative and generous not only for IJ, but for other organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, ACLU and Archdiocese of New York.
When I first met Bob in 1991, I was somewhat taken aback by his bluntness and strongly expressed opinions. In fact, at that first lunch, he vehemently asserted that I should change the name of the Institute for Justice to something like the Constitutional Litigation Center for Civil Rights and Liberty. When I explained why I had chosen the name Institute for Justice and why I wouldn’t change it, I thought from his reaction that he would never support us. But I didn’t realize that sometimes he just liked to challenge people, provoke debate and see if they could stand up to it.
Over the ensuing years, I benefitted from Bob’s insights and wisdom and the spirited discussions we would have. He was a brilliant and independent thinker who analyzed issues and problems, made up his mind, and, once decided, was never afraid to proceed.
Bob died on December 23, 2013. He went out as he lived, decisively and on his own terms, taking his life at age 87 after suffering a debilitating stroke. I will miss our lunch debates and discussions, but will think of him with deepest appreciation as I watch IJ achieve what he made possible.
Chip Mellor is the Institute’s president and general counsel.