David Koch, Wichita son who influenced American industry, philanthropy and politics, has died

David Koch, who along with his brother Charles ran Koch Industries for decades and became a household name in American politics, has died.

Koch was 79. Koch Industries said in a statement he died “after many years of fighting various illnesses.”

David and Charles Koch unmistakably altered the political scene, creating an array of groups to push their libertarian views. They funneled millions to causes often aligned with the Republican Party.

David Koch was born in Wichita and had lived in New York City. Even though he spent most of his life away from Kansas, he and Charles presided over a Wichita-based business empire that employs more than 3,000 people in the city and 120,000 worldwide. He retired from the business in 2018. Bloomberg reported that his net worth of about $59 billion in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index tied him with his brother as the world’s seventh-richest person.

He donated $1.3 billion to causes ranging from cancer research to the performing arts and public television.

Ultimately, he affected the lives of millions of Americans – whether through the products made by Koch, his political activism or philanthropic outreach.

“I hope one of my legacies will be that David Koch made the world a better place,” Koch told The Wichita Eagle in a 2014 interview.

Charles Koch said his brother had been diagnosed 27 years ago with advanced prostate cancer. But a combination of doctors, state-of-the-art medications “and his own stubbornness” kept the cancer at bay.

“We can all be grateful that it did, because he was able to touch so many more lives as a result,” Charles Koch said in a statement.

David Koch is survived by his wife, Julia Koch, and three children.

“While we mourn the loss of our hero, we remember his iconic laughter, insatiable curiosity, and gentle heart,” the family said in a joint statement.

Bill Koch, David’s twin brother, said he was an “outstanding human and he was my very best friend.”

Kansas tributes

On Friday, tributes poured in from Kansas Republicans.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former congressman from Wichita, praised Koch’s achievements.

“I was saddened to hear of the passing of David Koch. He was a compassionate philanthropist, successful businessman, and a proud American. I send my prayers to the Koch family during this difficult time,” Pompeo said in a tweet.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole said there will be “volumes written about all the positive things he did with his life.”

U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, who represents Wichita and south-central Kansas, said the Kochs have “been so instrumental in our community with the number of people who are hired and actually throughout the country, in things that they’ve done in terms of hiring people and support for the community.”

Estes’ wife Susan was employed as a Kansas field director of Americans for Prosperity for about eight years until she resigned when he ran for Congress after the 2016 election. The group, of which David Koch was a foundation director, advocates for limited government and low taxes.

Although he was one of the world’s richest people, David Koch “was always very gentlemanly, very kind,” Susan Estes said.

“I always appreciated that when he was around a waiter in a restaurant or any other area, he was kind to every single person on every level, no matter who they were or where they came from,” she said. “And that meant a lot to me about his character.”

David Koch was remembered at the Friday meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club as “a tremendous Wichitan.”

“He and his brother (Charles) have done incredible things in building and creating a worldwide company that has been a key industry leader in helping make the United States a competitive leader in the world in the 21st Century,” said Karl Peterjohn Pachyderm president and a former Sedgwick County commissioner.

Born in Wichita

David Hamilton Koch was born May 3, 1940, in Wichita, to Mary and Fred Koch, who was a chemical engineer. According to Koch Industries, David showed an early aptitude for technology.

The third of four sons, he graduated from the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts in 1959. He then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning degrees in chemical engineering.

Koch played basketball while at MIT, serving as captain of the team. For decades, he held the school’s single-game scoring record in basketball, with 41 points.

He spent time working as a research and process design engineer in Massachusetts and later for Scientific Design in New York City.

But by 1970, Koch had joined the family business, becoming a technical services manager at Koch Engineering.

In a few years, he ascended into the ranks of company executives, becoming president of Koch Engineering, which ultimately became Koch Engineered Solutions, in 1979. Koch Industries says that David and his team grew the business substantially and that the company’s businesses now provide equipment and services that improve the quality of fuels, chemicals and foods while increasing energy efficiency.

David Koch worked as executive vice president and a board member of Koch Industries until stepping down in June 2018. He was also chairman and CEO of Koch Chemical Technology Group — a subsidiary of Koch Industries — until his retirement.

Koch politics

In 1980, Koch was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate. The party platform opposed welfare and supported tax cuts. It also opposed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The ticket topped by Ed Clark got 921,128 votes — 1.06 percent of the nationwide popular vote. No Libertarian presidential ticket would get more votes until 2012.

In 1984, Charles Koch and Rich Fink founded what would become Americans for Prosperity. David was a “committed supporter,” according to an official Koch Industries obituary.

In the years that followed, the brothers developed a network of groups to advance their political causes, which were often libertarian.

David and Charles Koch had given more $100 million to political causes by 2010, according to The New Yorker, earning a reputation as influencers of American politics.

The Kochs built a model for how to influence elections that shocked the political system because it allowed money to have a greater effect on races, said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.

“He and his family, the impact they had on changing how American politics works has been massive,” Beatty said.

Over the years, the brothers time and again provided a foil for Democrats and others denouncing the spread of money into politics.

“The Koch brothers seem to believe in an America where the system is rigged to benefit the very wealthy,” The Washington Post quoted Harry Reid as saying in 2014. Reid led Democrats in the U.S. Senate from 2007 to 2015.

Former Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican, said David Koch “believed in individualism — that everyone should be free —which is at the heart of the American dream.”

Koch also found common cause with liberals at times. The brothers’ embrace of criminal justice reform grabbed the attention of Democrats. He also supported same-sex marriage before it was legalized nationwide.

The brothers were at odds with President Donald Trump. The Kochs opposed the president’s trade and tariff policies and did not support Trump in the 2016 election.

In 2018, Trump called the brothers a “total joke in real Republican circles.” At the time, the Koch Network said Koch supports policies “that help all people improve their lives.”

Philanthropic causes

David Koch has credited a harrowing plane crash with focusing him on his legacy.

On Feb. 1, 1991, Koch was on a US Air flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Los Angeles. The plane collided with a commuter jet as it was landing, skidding off the runway and dragging the smaller plane underneath.

The lights went out, passengers screamed and smoke entered the cabin. Koch survived, but 29 others died.

He has called his survival an “absolute miracle.”

“My feeling was, God almighty, everyone around me died, and I survived, and the good Lord must be sitting on my shoulder looking after me. He obviously has the feeling that I’m a person worth saving. He thinks that I can do a lot of good for the world if I stay alive,” Koch said in a 2014 interview with The Eagle.

Koch described experiencing in those moments his brain separating from his body and going toward a white light “and I remember my brain looking back, at this poor body that was dying, and the brain very confidently was escaping, and that lasted for quite a few moments, and all of a sudden my brain snapped back into my body.

“The really big gifts started, you know, after I had that terrible accident,” he said.

A year later, he received a diagnosis of prostate cancer and began giving to medical research centers and other facilities.

MIT’s Institute for Integrative Cancer Research bears his name. The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore includes the David H. Koch Cancer Research Building.

He also pledged $150 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The 23-story facility is slated to open this year, according to the cancer center’s website.

Koch also donated to performing arts centers and helped fund the PBS science show Nova.

And Wichita bears his mark. Along with his wife, Julia Koch, who he married in 1996, he contributed to the Mary R. Koch Arts Center.

“He believed he had a responsibility to a world that had given him so many opportunities to succeed,” David Koch’s family said in a statement. “David’s philanthropic dedication to education, the arts and cancer research will have a lasting impact on innumerable lives — and that we will cherish forever.”

Eagle reporter Dion Lefler and McClatchy DC reporter Bryan Lowry contributed reporting; former Eagle reporter Roy Wenzl contributed reporting

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.