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Playing For Real: Legendary Philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis

05/10/2013 05:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2013
  • Steve Mariotti Founder of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) Author of An Entrepreneur's Manifesto

One of the great philanthropists of our time passed away recently. She was my role model and friend, and I miss her already.

Kathryn Wasserman Davis was 106 when she died on April 23. During Kathryn's long, vital life, she gave millions to promote education, scientific research, and peace. She was also instrumental in helping to restore the Hudson River and the Maine coast. Over almost nine decades of philanthropy, some of her gifts include Wellesley College, her alma mater, the library at Lincoln Center, Princeton University's International Center, Wheaton College, and genetic research. She and her family have also donated to The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), the organization I founded which provides hands-on entrepreneurship education to at-risk youth around the world.

When she turned 100, she launched her signature project -- Projects for Peace. She committed $1 million to fund one hundred student-led peace actions, each with a $10,000 grant, at selected institutions around the world. The program is still expanding each year.

I once asked her what was the most important thing she had learned during her long, fascinating life. "Always treat people like they should be -- not like they are," she said, smiling at me.

Kathryn Davis was always ahead of her time. She earned a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Geneva in 1934, an unusual achievement for a woman in the '30s. She worked for the Council on Foreign Relations and authored The Soviets at Geneva: The USSR and the League of Nations, 1919-1933.

I met her through her daughter Diana Davis Spencer and granddaughter Abby Spencer Moffat 17 years ago. I had just hung up with NPR and was mulling over my interview, hoping that I did a good job conveying NFTE's mission. As I sat in our board room at 120 Wall Street on the 29th floor, the phone rang.

"Hi Steve, this is Abby Moffat." I sensed for some reason that this call would change my life. And it did.

"You did a wonderful interview, and I wanted to introduce myself," a lovely voice full of energy and intelligence said to me.

Abby told me that the family foundation believed in the mission I had laid out on the talk radio program -- that entrepreneurship education was critical to helping our at-risk youth develop pathways out of poverty.

"My mother would love to meet you," Abby continued, "Do call her."

Abby and I talked for another half hour. She told me what a great entrepreneur her grandfather, Shelby Cullum Davis, had been. He had founded Shelby Cullum Davis & Company, a firm specializing in insurance securities, in 1947. By the early 1990s his initial investment of $50,000 had grown to over $800 million. Davis became a valued financial advisor to governors and presidents and served as the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland from 1969 to 1975. In 1969, his son, Shelby M.C. Davis, founded Davis Funds, one of the most successful money management firms of the last hundred years.

Almost in passing, Abby said the words that would resonate for me for the next 19 years: "And my grandmother is awesome as well -- 87 and still plays tennis."

Abby invited me to a tennis classic at her college, so the very next day I found myself in Washington, D.C. watching a tennis game and waiting to meet her. In she came wearing the largest hat I had ever seen, dressed entirely in royal blue surrounded by an entourage of her college friends. She and I hit it off and talked for hours that afternoon. I knew I had passed the first test when she said, "Do call my mom. You'll probably be fast friends."

Within a week, I met the lovely Diana Davis Spencer for lunch at the Wellesley College Club. We sat by the water and chatted. Di and I hit it off immediately, and we became the best of friends. Another beauty, Di is the best listener I have ever met. I knew immediately that we would be friends forever and that I had found a confidante whom I could trust and with whom I could form a genuine partnership.

"One day you should meet my mother," she said, echoing her daughter Abby.

All my meetings with the legendary Kathryn Davis are etched into my mind. For one of our first get-togethers, I took Di and Kathryn to dinner and then to see Rent on Broadway.

Kathryn was small, with a beautiful face hardly touched by age. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met. She was smart, too. That evening she outlined her life story for me.

Her father, she recounted, was a successful entrepreneur who had made a fortune selling rugs in Philadelphia. Raised in Germantown, Kathryn went as a senior to the Madeira School, where she was the only Jewish girl, and felt tremendous prejudice from her peers. However, her top grades earned her admission to Wellesley College, where she graduated with honors in 1928.

A trip to the Soviet Union with her sister in 1929 ignited Kathryn's lifelong love of that country. A year later, she met her future husband on a train to Switzerland, where they were both going to a summer program, the Zimmerman School, which was established by the Rockefellers. She had many suitors at the time, but only one that was serious. He was in London -- "short and smart," she told me. Shelby had the geographical advantage. He won out.

They both returned to enter Columbia University's International House in New York City. After receiving their master's degrees in international relations, they decided to get married before heading to the University of Geneva, where they earned their Ph.D.s. When they returned to the States, Shelby used the money they got from the wedding to invest in the stock market instead of buying a home.

Kathryn told me that Shelby was a visionary, and decided to buy Japanese insurance stocks when he visited Japan with the Security Analysts in 1960. "They had nowhere to go but up," she explained. Kathryn herself was a member of the Stock Exchange -- in fact, the oldest member!

After that first "date," I was included in many family gatherings, including visits to Northeast Harbor, Maine and Jupiter Island, Florida. Kathryn gave fabulous dinner parties, where she would sit at the end of the table and hold court. The conversations were the best and most interesting I had ever heard with movers and shakers from around the world.

The days were a whirl of activity, but my favorite times were the tennis doubles with Kathryn and her family. She was in her 90s, and I would play with all my might, hitting the ball past her as hard as I could and winning many points.

After a set, the tennis pro of the Jupiter Island Club reminded me, "You're playing a woman who is almost 95 years old."

Kathryn, overhearing this, jumped to my defense, saying, "Steve plays for real."

Of all the many wise things she ever said to me, that sentence captured her for me. "She played for real."

I will always try to do the same.

Kathryn Wasserman Davis

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