David Hamilton Koch, longtime stockholder, director, and leader in Koch Industries, passed away on August 23, 2019 at age 79 after many years of fighting various illnesses. This is the story of his life and contributions to the company where he worked, the communities where he lived, and the lives that he touched. David had always exhibited the qualities that enabled him to make so many contributions. As his father Fred put it, “David is very quick in mind and body. He is a natural athlete and very practical. If any of the kids becomes an engineer, I think it will be he.”
As it turned out, David would be an engineer, and much, much more. An all-American athlete. A chief executive officer. A U.S. vice-presidential candidate. A cancer fighter. A plane crash survivor. An extremely generous philanthropist. From a Kansan to a New Yorker. A devoted husband. A proud father.
Born May 3, 1940, to Fred and Mary Koch, David showed an early aptitude for technology and personal development that would serve him and others well throughout his eight decades. From business to philanthropy to politics—and even basketball—Koch made an indelible impression on everything he touched, leaving a legacy of helping others.
Growing up Koch
David, who retired in 2018 as executive vice president of Koch Industries, was the third of four brothers—Frederick, the oldest; Charles, chairman and CEO, Koch Industries; and William, his fraternal twin. Despite the family’s wealth, Fred was determined not to let his sons become “country club bums,” as Charles Koch recalled in Good Profit. Instead of leisurely afternoons on the golf course or by the pool, David and his brothers worked outside during the hot summers and applied themselves in the classroom.
“I see in David many of the same wonderful qualities our father had. And one of particular note is his insatiable thirst for knowledge. It is what caused him to be one of the best I’ve ever seen at combining commercial and technical ability,” Charles recalled in paying tribute to his brother as he received the Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s George Washington Award for Principled Leadership in 2007.
Upon graduating from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts in 1959, David attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering. David was captain of the basketball team and a small college all-American. In 1962, he set the school record by scoring 41 points in a single game, a mark that stood for 46 years.
Building capabilities and opportunity
After graduation, David worked as a research and process design engineer for Amicon and Arthur D. Little in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before moving to New York City to join Scientific Design. In 1970, he joined the family business as a technical services manager at Koch Engineering, later Koch Chemical Technology Group (KCTG), becoming its president in 1979.
Over the years, David and his team at KCTG, now Koch Engineered Solutions (KES), grew the process equipment and engineering business 50-fold. Today, KES’ businesses provide equipment and services that improve the quality of fuels, chemicals and foods while increasing energy efficiency and lowering emissions.
“David’s guidance and loyalty, especially in Koch Industries’ most troubled times, was unwavering. David never wanted anything for himself that he hadn’t earned, as his sole desire was to contribute. He was always dedicated to the long-term success of the company,” Charles recalled. “He wanted to focus on those areas where he could make the greatest contribution. I think David’s gift was in spotting technologies that would create value for our customers.”
Today, KES employs more than 5,000 people in multiple businesses, including Koch-Glitsch; John Zink Hamworthy Combustion; Optimized Process Designs; Koch Membrane Systems; Koch Heat Transfer; and Genesis Robotics.
Supporting freedom for all
The same year that David assumed leadership of Koch Engineering he became the Libertarian Party’s candidate for vice president of the United States. He and Ed Clark, the presidential candidate, ran on a platform that advocated for individual rights and against the oppression and harassment of people based on sexual orientation. They also proposed eliminating policies that were stifling innovation, competition, and opportunity for the least advantaged. This included policies such as occupational licensure and the criminalization of drug use. The Libertarian ticket received 921,128 votes, or 1%, the party’s best presidential showing in terms of percentage until 2016.
Then, in 1984, after Charles and Rich Fink founded what is now known as Americans for Prosperity to advance these same ideas, David became a committed supporter. Fink, who also served as executive vice president of Koch Industries, praised David for his “tremendous thirst for knowledge,” generosity, integrity, and “passion for freedom. If you understand those four things, I think you could understand David Koch.”
Those qualities would continue to serve him well, as in the late 1980s and 1990s, Koch Industries was confronting various legal challenges, and David was faced with life-threatening ones.
Responding to adversity with philanthropy
On February 1, 1991, David was aboard a USAir flight when it collided with a SkyWest plane upon landing at Los Angeles International Airport. Altogether, 35 people died and 29 were injured. David survived. Surrounded by smoke and fire, he barely escaped the burning cabin through a galley door at the front of the plane.
“I was amazed that I had survived this accident. Thinking back on it later, I felt that the good Lord was sitting on my shoulder and that He helped save my life because He wanted me to do good works and become a good citizen,” David told Barbara Walters in 2014. “Following that revelation, I became tremendously philanthropic, and I intend to continue being very philanthropic the rest of my life.”
In total, David has pledged or contributed more than $1.295 billion to cancer research, medical centers, educational institutions, arts and cultural centers, and public policy organizations.
A year after surviving the plane disaster, David learned that he had prostate cancer. Despite many treatments, the cancer was never completely cured.
“It stands to reason that David—born with an engineer’s mind—would care deeply about the search for the best tools and technologies to fight this vicious disease,” Charles wrote in Good Profit.
David’s largest donations have been to create medical research centers and patient facilities, many of which bear his name, including MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, which has helped launch approximately 80 companies to date, saving many lives today and in the future, as well as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Other major recipients included Johns Hopkins, Stanford University Hospital, the Mount Sinai Medical Center, and the Hospital for Special Surgery.
In May 1996, David married Julia Flesher, with whom he had three children: David Jr., Mary Julia, and John.
Buoyed by a lifelong appreciation for arts and culture instilled by his mother, Mary, David, along with Julia, made many other donations, including major gifts to the Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. David and Julia also contributed to the construction of the Mary R. Koch Arts Center in Wichita.
Leaving a legacy
For all his wealth and personal and business accomplishments, David was most proud of his dedication to helping others. He was especially committed to personally ensuring that those with a serious illness who asked for his help got the best care. Over the years they numbered in the thousands.
He was touched by all those who reached out to thank him for his part in saving their lives. One such letter that was particularly meaningful to him was from Niels Jorgensen, a firefighter who contracted hairy cell leukemia from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. He told David that the world should know all the good he has done.
It was this legacy of helping others that mattered most to David. During his interview with Barbara Walters, the accomplished businessman, engineer, and philanthropist summed up what he hoped might appear on his epitaph: “I’d like it to say that David Koch did his best to make the world a better place and that he hopes his wealth will help people long after he has passed away.”