The Philanthropy Roundtable was saddened to learn of the death of Kathryn Wasserman Davis. A longtime friend of the Roundtable, Mrs. Davis passed away on April 23 at her home in Hobe Sound, Florida. For decades, her philanthropic efforts sought to foster international peace, conserve natural landscapes, and promote public-policy research.
Born in February 1907, Kathryn Wasserman was the daughter of a successful Philadelphia rug merchant. She went to the Madeira School in Washington, D.C., and then to Wellesley College. (A member of the class of 1928, Mrs. Davis was Wellesley’s oldest alumna.) She later earned master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University, and a doctorate from the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
Shortly after graduating from Wellesley, Mrs. Davis traveled to the Soviet Union. On an expedition in the Caucasus Mountains, she was unfazed when bandits stole her party’s horses and food. “We ate wild berries for breakfast and spit-roasted mountain goat for dinner,” she said later. “I couldn't have been happier.” Throughout her life, she would return to Russia more than 30 times.
At 23, she met a young man named Shelby Davis on a train from Paris to Geneva. He had also been to Russia recently, and the two struck up a conversation. Two years later, they were married. Mrs. Davis completed her doctorate in 1927, submitting a dissertation arguing that the Soviets would join the League of Nations. It was an unconventional—and controversial—conclusion, one that suggested peace was perhaps more possible than was commonly thought. When published, her dissertation became a bestseller in Europe.
From her father, she had inherited a small fortune which through prudent investment had managed to survive the Great Depression intact. Kathryn gave $100,000 to Shelby, as seed capital, with which to begin making investments. By the time of his death in 1994, Shelby Davis grew that initial investment to an $800 million fortune.
Over their six-decade marriage, Kathryn and Shelby Davis used that fortune to become some of America’s most generous patrons of higher education and public-policy research. A central ambition of their philanthropy was a clear-eyed assessment world international affairs, and the relentless pursuit of international peace.
Together, the Davises endowed the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University; the Kathryn W. and Shelby Cullom ’30 International Center at Princeton University; the Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian at Middlebury College; professorships at Princeton, Columbia, and Trinity College; libraries at Bradley University and the Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University; the Kathryn W. Davis Center for International and Regional Studies at College of the Atlantic; the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College; and the Kathryn W. Davis Student Center at the United World College-USA.
Davis was a dedicated patron of think tanks across the ideological spectrum. She created the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation and supported the East-West Institute, the Center for Security Policy, and the Institute for World Politics. “My challenge to you,” she explained at the East-West Institute in 2006, “is to bring about new ideas for preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.”
Lucid and physically active to the end of her life, she was an accomplished swimmer, tennis player, painter, and conservationist. In 1998, at the age of 91, she took up kayaking, making regular excursions on the Hudson River and along the coast of Maine. Inspired by those hours on the water, she became a generous funder of conservation organizations like Scenic Hudson, Friends of Acadia, and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
In 2007, Davis became a centenarian. To mark the occasion, she created 100 Projects for Peace. College students supply ideas—eminently practical projects, things they can do in a short period of time—and the top 100 projects each win $10,000. Winning projects have brought improved oral hygiene to Egypt, solar-powered cookers to rural Tibet, and public libraries to Guatemala. Davis believed that if college students could test their ideas for promoting peace, they would gain better insights into the challenges and realities of peace-building.
Kathryn Wasserman Davis spent her life looking forward. When one of her great-grandchildren asked her what her favorite day was, she instantly replied: “Tomorrow!” She enjoyed an astonishing 38,775 tomorrows in her lifetime, and never stopped looking toward the next one. “We don’t know what tomorrow holds,” she said in 2007, “and therefore let us take advantage of today, to be as useful as possible.”