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David Murdock Wants You to Live Forever

In a struggling North Carolina mill town, the billionaire is spending a fortune to help himself — and others — avoid the diseases of aging

En español l "I think anyone who wants to live past 100 can do it," says billionaire businessman David Murdock. This brash pronouncement is surprising for someone with Murdock's family history; he has lost many loved ones before their time. Murdock's mother died of cancer at age 42, and two of his three children died before they reached 40. His two siblings died in their 60s. And Gabriele, his beloved third wife and the mother of his children, died of ovarian cancer at 43.

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David Murdock at Kannapolis campus in NC

David Murdock is on a quest to find the secret to longevity. — Peter Yang

Yet these losses have not dimmed Murdock's hopes of living long and living well. If anything, they have fueled them. Murdock — a self-made real estate titan who chairs the board of Dole Food Company — just turned 90, and he believes that the nutrients in fruits, vegetables, seeds and husks hold the key to longevity. "I never think about age at all," he says, sitting on a red silk couch in his two-story Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. "I just think about what I eat."

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Murdock's marble-topped coffee table is strewn with books on nutrition. His zealous faith in the power of healthy eating has become his own personal gospel. And now that gospel is guiding his life's great mission: to help science defeat death, and to resurrect a dying town in the process.

Over coffee mellowed with almond milk, Murdock, the country's 213th- richest man, admits that he wasn't always a healthy eater. "I used to think nothing of eating a quart of whipped cream on top of strawberries," he says. But when German-born Gabriele, a painter and patron of the arts, was diagnosed with cancer in 1983, he reconsidered. During the year and a half the couple spent at the Mayo Clinic while Gabriele endured radiation, chemotherapy and surgery — her lush brown hair thinning and her luminous skin turning ashen — Murdock grasped for ways to help her survive, including serving her more fresh foods. Eventually he came to suspect that a healthier diet might have prevented her illness. After Gabriele died in 1985, Murdock turned his grief into a quest to discover all he could about nutrition.

As he read books and interviewed researchers, Murdock changed his diet dramatically. He eliminated red meat — "the kiss of death," as he calls it — and then chicken, too, because they contain saturated fat. Dairy with saturated fat came next. "If someone paid me a million dollars to drink a glass of milk, I wouldn't do it," says the self-described perfectionist, adding cheekily, "maybe that's because I don't need the money." (Murdock bought his first business, a Detroit diner, at age 22 with $1,200 in borrowed money and sold it 18 months later for a $700 profit. Now, after a lifetime of buying, building and selling, his net worth is estimated at $2.4 billion.)

While Murdock was eliminating animal products from his diet, he was also piling on the plants — and not just the parts that the rest of us eat. He consumes every bit of a fruit or vegetable, especially the rinds, because he is convinced that "anything the sun touches has nutritional value in it." Cucumber skins and celery leaves go straight down the hatch; banana peels and pineapple leaves get tossed in the blender for a smoothie. He still eats fish, and occasionally those smoothies also include shrimp tails or sardines with bones.

If seeing is believing, Murdock's unusual diet is paying off. His complexion is bright, his eyes are clear, and he rises from that lavish sofa without effort. His pinstripe suit loosely drapes his 5-foot-8-inch frame, with the most minor of love handles interrupting an otherwise taut physique. Murdock rises by 4:30 a.m. and exercises daily — though "I don't think I twist enough," he says, his voice gravelly but forceful, as if he's issuing a command. And his mind is sharp. "I can memorize five pages of balance sheets," he says — a compensation for his lifelong dyslexia. Occasionally he'll admit to not remembering something. "But," he jokes, "that's usually just an excuse to avoid something."

Inspired by his findings on how nutrition can improve health, Murdock went on to coauthor an encyclopedic book on the subject with professionals from the Mayo Clinic and UCLA in 2001. But apart from that, he limited his proselytizing on healthy eating to friends and family. He never expected to create an entire research facility that would serve as a pulpit for his views. But, due to an accident of real estate, that is what happened.

Next page: One of the most diverse research sites in the world. »

From 1982 until 1986, Murdock owned Cannon Mills, a sheet and towel manufacturer in western North Carolina. When he bought the company, he also acquired downtown Kannapolis, a quaint row of shops and restaurants; about 2,200 rental houses; and Pity's Sake, a sprawling lodge on the outskirts of town. He owned several mansions by then — as well as 98 percent of the Hawaiian island Lanai. When he sold the textile business, he held on to Kannapolis' shops and rental housing, as well as Pity's Sake.

Before Murdock bought the shuttered mill in town "there was absolutely no hope," one resident recalls.

In 2003 the mill's owner declared the company unable to compete with overseas manufacturers and closed. In the largest layoff in North Carolina history, 4,340 people in Kannapolis lost their jobs overnight. With no industry to replace textile manufacturing, the downtown quickly became a ghost town. "There was absolutely no hope," recalls Ryan Dayvault, a Kannapolis native whose great-great-grandfather owned the farmland upon which the textile mills were built.

Unless someone could revive the mill property, Murdock's investments in Kannapolis would be close to worthless, and his lodge, Pity's Sake, would be marooned in a sea of economic despair. That lodge held precious memories — not only of Gabriele, but of their eldest son, Eugene, who had died at age 23 in a pool accident in the late 1980s. Pity's Sake had been the family's favorite place to celebrate holidays. "North Carolina was where you could have Thanksgiving and feel like it was Thanksgiving," Murdock remembers.

American entrepreneur David Murdock relaxes on a wicker chair on his plantation in Lanai, Hawaii. A basket of pineapples sits on a table in front of him.  (Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images)

David Murdock in Lanai, Hawaii, in 1989. — Getty Images

So when the bankrupt company's main mill complex came up for auction, Murdock wanted it. He put together a preliminary bid in the spring of 2004 and began working to iron out the details. Then, in October, Murdock's middle son, David Jr., died in a car accident at age 36. Murdock was shattered, but his plans were already in motion, and in December 2004 he won the main mill property with a bid of $6.375 million. (His youngest son, Justin, 39, works as a director of Dole and CEO of NovaRx, a pharmaceutical company in which father and son together have invested at least $35 million.)

Murdock has little to say about his personal tragedies, acknowledging only the duration of his crippling grief. "When my wife died, I couldn't work for a year," he says. "First son, another year. Second son, another year."

For the tycoon, redeveloping the mill site became more than a way to shore up his real estate interests. In his latest sorrow, it became a reason to live, according to Lynne Scott Safrit, president of North American commercial operations for Castle & Cooke, Murdock's real estate holdings company. "I think this project gave him motivation to get back up on the horse again," says Safrit, a Kannapolis native who began working for Murdock in the 1980s. "Losing his family has given him an inner drive to do something for other people."

But exactly what Murdock should do with the land was a mystery. During many late nights at Pity's Sake, he and Safrit tossed around ideas. A hospital? Senior housing? A country club? None of it seemed quite right. Finally, they asked, "What is North Carolina good at?"

The answer was clear: science. With its renowned Research Triangle Park — 150 miles east of Kannapolis — and a collection of esteemed universities throughout the state, North Carolina is the third-largest life sciences center in the country, after Massachusetts and California. Murdock's vision quickly fell into place. He would create lab space for researchers from the state's major universities, connect those researchers to scientists from the agriculture industry who could turn their discoveries into products, and provide affordable health care to locals. The campus's purpose: to discover plants' life-giving powers and deliver them to people.

Six hundred million dollars later, that vision is a reality. Opened in 2008, the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) spans 350 acres, with more than a million square feet of labs and offices housed in 11 Georgian-style buildings on curving brick walkways. More than 15 academic institutions, companies and health care outlets maintain a presence there, making it one of the most diverse research sites in the world.

Next page: Superfoods and reducing risk of chronic disease. »

Much of the work at NCRC is focused on investigating "superfoods" such as berries, ginger and broccoli to discover how they reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Some labs at NCRC are pioneering the field of nutrigenomics, the study of how genes affect nutrition and vice versa. Most NCRC research is funded by the scientists' home institutions, but one effort is funded by Murdock himself: a project to catalog DNA in 50,000 blood and urine samples from citizens in Kannapolis and surrounding Cabarrus County. Researchers hope to discover genetic connections among diseases and develop new ways of treating and preventing them. The study is called "Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease of Cabarrus/Kannapolis (MURDOCK)." So far, Murdock has donated $35 million to the effort — enough to keep it running for 10 to 15 years. He visits its office regularly, and "he's very hands-on," says Ashley Dunham, Ph.D., of the Duke University Translational Medicine Institute, who directs the study. "His favorite thing is to go out to community groups" to urge locals to donate their DNA to the cause.

"I'm interested in keeping myself alive forever, and so I want to look after other people the same way I look after myself." — David Murdock

At a time when the feds are cutting back on research funding, this investment has garnered praise nationwide. "Murdock wants to give big bucks to see good research done," says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., an expert in nutrigenomics and professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston. NCRC scientists "have an opportunity to make a significant contribution," he says.

Researchers admit that close ties between industry and academia need to be monitored, so companies don't try to distort findings that threaten their bottom lines. But so far, NCRC's setup has raised few eyebrows. "As long as the private sector doesn't have the capability to silence individual findings, I think it's exciting," says James Simon, Ph.D., who directs the New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

If NCRC may one day improve lives around the world, it is also beginning to do so closer to home. Kannapolis, a city of about 43,000, is still struggling. NCRC currently employs only 300 locals, a far cry from the thousands who worked in textiles. But 300 people per day attend a community college that Murdock built as part of NCRC, where they are gaining the training needed to compete for skilled jobs on campus. Safrit projects that NCRC will eventually employ 5,000 people — an even mix of locals and transplants. The campus's growth may be the kiss that awakens the still-slumbering downtown, as more staff means more business for local shops.

Some Kannapolis residents do resent the tycoon who's bought up the scenery, but most seem accepting, especially because the town has been in wealthy hands since J. W. Cannon of Cannon Mills started building it more than 100 years ago. "I get tired of hearing the comment that one man shouldn't own the town," says Larry Newton, who has lived in Kannapolis most of his life. "This town has always been owned by one person." Having watched younger locals move away for lack of jobs, Newton welcomes the infusion of capital — and hope. "There needs to be something new," he says.

Encouraging signs abound. Construction on the campus, stalled after the 2008 stock market crash (which cut Murdock's fortune almost in half), has restarted. The research labs have begun hiring again. The nascent campus — still looking unfinished, without the lush trees and ivy that usually surround academia — is coming to life.

Murdock was married twice before he wed Gabriele and has been married twice since. (He has been through three divorces and one other bereavement.) When he talks about Gabriele, he still calls her "my wife," though she has been gone now for 28 years, a decade longer than they were married. He still regrets the steaks, the whipped cream and the other rich foods he believes contributed to Gabriele's illness. But rather than just endure his remorse, he says, "I decided I would do something about it."

That something was grand. For the domed ceiling of the 311,000-square-foot David H. Murdock Core Laboratory, Murdock commissioned a mural of brightly hued fruits and vegetables, buttressed by an eagle. At Forty Six, a restaurant named for the number of human chromosomes, the walls bear his favorite sayings. Socrates: "Wisdom begins in wonder." Murdock himself: "In order to do the impossible, you must see the invisible."

For all his extravagant pronouncements, though, Murdock seems to see himself as a simple man who wants to help. "I didn't need all my money, so I decided I'll spend it for science," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm interested in keeping myself alive forever, and so I want to look after other people the same way I look after myself."

Jessica Wapner is a freelance science writer. Her first book, The Philadelphia Chromosome, comes out in May.

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