April 27, 1981 12:00 PM

It is said that the worst legacy a parent can leave a child is a lot of money—the temptation to dissipation is too great. With their Baptist rectitude and industry, the Rockefellers have generally contradicted that maxim—and none more than David Rockefeller, 65, who this week retires after 35 years with the giant Chase Manhattan Bank (the last 12 as its chairman). Of course, Rockefeller’s rise from junior executive to the top may have been aided by his wealth (which has been estimated at more than $1 billion) and by the fact that his mother’s brother was chairman at Chase when he went to work there. But as a philanthropist, capitalist and unofficial board chairman of the Eastern Establishment, David was arguably more influential than his far more public and gregarious brother Nelson.

American banking has never produced a more powerful international figure than Rockefeller—or a more suspect figure to beady-eyed searchers after conspiracy. Both George Bush and Jimmy Carter have been attacked for their membership in the Trilateral Commission—a bugbear of the right wing, which Rockefeller founded in 1973 to foster cooperation among leaders of North America, Europe and Japan. Many critics blame him for precipitating the Iranian hostage crisis by pressuring Carter to admit the late Shah into the U.S. for medical treatment. “He felt it was necessary for the national honor that the U.S. stand by an old friend in his hour of need,” explains Henry Kissinger, who began his career as a protégé of Rockefellers.

Some contend Rockefeller was so involved in global issues that he neglected to mind the store. “Kings may like to talk to David Rockefeller, but that doesn’t get you business,” sniffs one Wall Street competitor. Under Rockefeller, Chase slipped badly in the 1970s: In 1976 loan losses hit $1.9 billion. Rockefeller axed 600 executives, brought in a new team of deputies and turned the bank around.

In retirement, David plans to devote 13 to 14 hours a day to the family foundations. His favorite causes: farmland preservation and private-sector remedies for unemployment. There will be more time for his beetle collection (once estimated at 40,000 specimens) and for traveling with Margaret McGrath Rockefeller, his wife of 40 years. David needn’t worry that the old family virtues are dying out in the next generation: All six of his children are involved in public service—including David Jr., who chairs an organization promoting arts in public schools, and daughter Abby, who markets her own ecologically sound toilet system.

The Rockefeller message will be carried on by his ideological descendants as well. Most prominent among them is Reaganaut author George (Wealth and Poverty) Gilder, the son of David’s Harvard roommate. Rockefeller underwrote Gilder’s education after his father was killed in World War II. “He sent me to Exeter and Harvard,” Gilder recalls. “But he made me work. He didn’t pay so much that I got the impression that money grew on trees.” For David Rockefeller, of course, money practically did grow on trees—but he may be remembered as the last capitalist in this age of avarice who felt the need to earn, if not his keep, his reputation.

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