Kathryn Wasserman Davis, an internationally known philanthropist and scholar who founded a program that supports student peace projects and an endowed faculty chair in Russian Studies at Wheaton, died on April 23, at the age of 106. She was the mother of Wheaton College Trustee Emerita Diana Davis Spencer ’60.
“Mrs. Davis was an exceptional advocate for international peace and understanding throughout her life,” said President Ronald Crutcher. “Her extraordinary generosity has helped people around the world through the arts, education, environmental conservation and global peace initiatives. Wheaton students are among the many thousands of people whose lives have been enriched by her commitment to building a better world.”
A resident of Hobe Sound, Fla., Tarrytown, N.Y., and Northeast Harbor, Maine, she skied into her eighties, played tennis into her nineties and kayaked, swam, painted, traveled and played croquet until this year. An inspiration to those around her, recently she was asked by one of her great-grandchildren to name her favorite day, she instantly replied, “tomorrow.”
She received a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She also held honorary doctorates from Columbia University, Middlebury College and Wheaton.
In 1934, her doctoral dissertation, The Soviets in Geneva, was published and became a best seller 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 author numerous articles on foreign affairs in many publications. She also was a frequent lecturer to educational and civic groups in the U.S., India, Russia, China and Switzerland.
Russia and the Soviet Union were her lifelong passion. In 1996, this passion was memorialized when Harvard’s Russian Research Center was renamed in honor of her and her late husband, the legendary investor, diplomat and philanthropist Shelby Cullom Davis, former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland.
Kathryn first visited Russia in 1929, traveling through the Caucasus Mountains on horseback. During her lifetime she returned to Russia more than 30 times, developing friendships that included former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was her dinner partner at her 95th birthday party.
She dedicated herself to philanthropy. In particular, she was devoted to her alma mater, Wellesley College, where she served as a trustee for 18 years and created the Davis Museum and Cultural Center. At Wheaton, she supported scholarships for the United World College and other international students; operating costs for the Center for Global Education; the Davis Fellows endowment for student projects abroad, and the Shelby Cullom Davis Endowed Professorship in Russian Studies. She also contributed to the effort to build the new Mars Center for Science and Technology, which includes the Diana Davis Spencer ’60 Cafe, named for her daughter.
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Kathryn, at age 94, turned her philanthropic mission to a vision for world peace. For her efforts, she was presented with the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service and the EastWest Institute’s Peace and Conflict Prevention Award.
For her 100th birthday in 2007, she created the Davis Projects for Peace, which funds 100 student summer projects each year aimed at increasing global understanding. Twelve Wheaton students have won the grant award over the years.
Accepting her honorary degree at Wheaton in 2008, Davis offered some memorable words of wisdom: “My many years have taught me there will always be conflicts. It’s part of human nature. But I will remind you that love, kindness and support are also part of human nature.”