In Memoriam: The RBF Honors the Life of Robert B. Oxnam (1942-2024)

Robert B. Oxnam, former trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) and president of the Asia Society, shared his decades of China scholarship and visionary approach to help shape the RBF’s China program. Robert passed away at home from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on April 18, 2024.

Robert served as RBF trustee from 1998–2007 and advisory trustee from 2007–2010. The RBF benefited greatly not only from his breadth of knowledge but also from what then-board chair Dr. Richard Rockefeller described as a “questioning—and questing—spirit” that often led the board to explore fresh possibilities. Robert once described John D. Rockefeller 3rd’s decision to launch the Asia Society as a “bet on the future,” exemplifying the optimism that guided his work, which emphasized cross-cultural understanding, education, and collaboration.

“Robert was a brilliant Asia expert with an unparalleled depth of insight on China. He was also a dear friend and generous mentor,” said Stephen Heintz, current president and CEO of the RBF.

Robert joined the Asia Society in 1975 as the first director of its China Council, where he promoted public understanding of China before the normalization of relations with the United States. He was vice president and director of the Asia Society’s Washington, D.C., center before serving as its president from 1981–1992.

As president, Robert contributed to the professionalization of the Asia Society to address the continent’s most pressing challenges. He oversaw the expansion of programming to over 30 Asian countries, paved the way for the organization’s first location in Asia, and brought together Asian and American business and political leaders at then-groundbreaking conferences in the region. Within the organization, he prioritized increasing the representation of Asian staff and trustees.

Robert was also a tenured Japanese and Chinese history professor at Trinity, an accomplished sculptor and photographer, a competitive bicycle racer, and a solo sailor. He authored several books, including his memoir, A Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder, which described Oxnam’s work toward a collaborative cohesion of his many selves and elicited widespread media coverage.