Projects for Peace: The Vision of Kathryn W. Davis

"My challenge to you is to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war."

The Life and Legacy of Kathryn Wasserman Davis

On April 23rd, 2013, the world lost a great champion for peace. Kathryn Wasserman Davis, noted philanthropist and scholar, was 106 when she passed away; throughout her long life, she used her fortitude and financial resources to advance cultural understanding around the globe.

Always an explorer of far-off places, the adventurous Davis first visited Russia in 1929, traveling through the Caucasus Mountains on horseback with famed anthropologist Leslie White. The dangerous journey included a run-in with bandits who stole the group’s food and horses. “We ate wild berries for breakfast and spit-roasted mountain goat for dinner,” she told the Moscow Times in 2002. “And I couldn’t have been happier.”

During her lifetime she returned to Russia more than 30 times, deepening her passion for its people, history, and culture, and developing friendships that included former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was her dinner partner at her 95th birthday party. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, Davis turned her philanthropic mission toward her vision for world peace and, in recognition of her efforts, received the 2006 Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service from the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and the EastWest Institute’s 2006 Peace and Conflict Prevention Award in Potsdam, Germany.

In a surprise appearance by Davis at the Middlebury Language Schools commencement in  2006, four remarkable events occurred. The 99-year-old philanthropist announced the creation of Projects for Peace, a program for college students that every year funds 100 global summer projects aimed at conflict prevention, resolution, or reconciliation. At the same time, Davis announced a sister program, Fellows for Peace, that would cover the full cost of attendance in the Middlebury Language Schools for 100 peace-oriented students each summer.

Also at the 2006 Language Schools event, the college conferred on Davis an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, and announced that the summer Russian School, which had been founded in  1945, would be renamed The Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian. “Some people think Russian studies aren’t important anymore–don’t ask me why!” Davis said in 1998. “The more people know about each other, the better, and this is what I am hoping will happen. And hopefully that will lead to world peace, which is my main goal.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1907, Davis was educated at Miss Madeira’s School in Washington, D.C. She received a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College, a master’s in international relations from Columbia University, and a doctorate from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. In addition to her honorary degree from Middlebury, she holds honorary doctorates from Columbia University and Wheaton College.

In 1934 her doctoral thesis, “The Soviets in Geneva,” was published and became a best-selling book in Europe when her controversial prediction that the Soviet Union would join the League of Nations proved both timely and correct. She went on to write numerous articles on foreign affairs for publications ranging from the Readers Digest to The United States in World Affairs, a publication of the Council on Foreign Relations.

It was a shared interest in world affairs that first drew her to her husband of 62 years, the late Shelby Cullom Davis, who was the United States ambassador to Switzerland from 1969 to 1975  and later headed the New York investment firm that bears his name. Kathryn Wasserman and Shelby C. Davis met on a train headed for Geneva in 1930 and discovered they had both recently traveled in Russia. After returning to New York and completing master’s degrees at Columbia University, and following a courtship at International House where they both resided, they were married on Jan. 4, 1932 . They would return to Switzerland, first to complete their doctorates in 1934 and again during the years that Mr. Davis served as ambassador.

After her husband’s death in 1994, Davis dedicated herself to philanthropy, primarily focusing on education and international affairs, but also embracing a wide range of other causes. She was devoted to her alma mater, Wellesley College, serving on its board for many years and supporting numerous projects. Her passion for Russian studies impelled her in 1996 to make a sizeable gift to the Russian research center at Harvard University, which is now known as the Shelby C. Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Davis is survived by her daughter Diana Davis Spencer, her son Shelby M.C. Davis, eight grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.