Kaethe Peters, 98, longtime social worker, educator


Kaethe Peters spent about 60 years in Cambridge, where she was a fixture at museums and restaurants and was best known as a social worker and advocate for the young.

In a 1951 application for a Fulbright scholarship, she wrote that her work in one of the poorest parts in London taught her “the difficulties the young have in growing up, particularly when they live under the stress of a bad social pattern.”

“In trying to acquaint these youngsters with art and music, in which I am greatly interested, we hoped to bring color, awareness of life, and development to them,” she wrote. “I found from this experience that it is essential to enrich one’s own personality to capacity so that one can give freely to others.”


Known to friends as Katya or Kathy, Mrs. Peters died of a stroke Oct. 21 in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. She was 98.

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Mrs. Peters held a number of positions in social work and education. She worked on behalf of children and their mothers for the Boston Children’s Service Association, helped run a program for high school dropouts, and taught at Boston University. From 1970 to 1981, she supervised social workers at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham.

In 1981, she helped found Integrated Foster Care, an agency that placed special-needs children in foster homes, and served as its executive director until retiring in 1997.

Her son, Matthew, of Cambridge, described her as “a tiny woman who lived a very large life.”

Mrs. Peters “loved to dance, and she loved a glass of champagne,” he said. “She was a firebrand, a force of life. Anyone who met her never forgot her.”


The day before suffering a stroke, Mrs. Peters dined with her friend Tish Robbins at The Burren, an Irish pub in Somerville’s Davis Square.

“She had shepherd’s pie and a beer,” Robbins said. “She had asked for a light ale and thought the one they brought was too dark. So she took a sip and asked them to bring her another one.”

Having lived in London for 11 years, Mrs. Peters once dreamed of living in a flat on Hampstead Heath.

“She was always in search of a good English pub,” Robbins said. “She always wanted to try new places. Every day with her was an adventure.”

Born Kaethe Jacob in Erfurt, Germany, she moved to London just before World War II and sought a career in social work.


Because she was a German national, however, she was arrested soon after arriving and detained on the Isle of Mann . Her parents and a sister died in German concentration camps.

Another sister, Esther, left Germany in 1933 for what became Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz until her death two years ago. Although the sisters lived far apart, they remained close, said Mrs. Peters’s daughter, Clara Simon, of Albany, N.Y.

In 1949, Mrs. Peters visited Israel while counseling Arab refugees as part of an international social work effort.

“Her sister was defending her community with a rifle, and my mother was part of an idealistic group of young Jewish people, helping Arabs who were in dire straits,” said Simon. “That was a hallmark of my mother. She always wanted to help, no matter what side.”

Because her parents and a sister died in the Holocaust, Mrs. Peters “had a choice to either hate and stew and deteriorate, or to try to help build a world where people of different ethnicities could get along,” her son said.

While working as a nanny and at agencies working with children, she studied at the University of London. The Fulbright scholarship helped her attend a master’s program in social work at Columbia University in New York City.

Mrs. Peters became a British citizen in 1947, writing in her application that her “interest lies with the individual and his adjustment to the community,” which “can best be directed and developed in children, their healthy growth, and their security.”

She arrived in New York in 1951 “with five dollars in her pocket,” her son said. She expected to return to London after graduating from Columbia, but was introduced to Stefan Peters by a mutual friend. They married in 1952 and moved to Cambridge soon afterward. He died in 1990.

At 83, Mrs. Peters began an extracurricular program for special needs students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. It employed the Orff approach, which focuses on activities children enjoy, such as clapping, dancing, and playing percussion instruments.

During her career, Mrs. Peters received many awards and served on the boards of numerous organizations. She also was deeply involved in the Cambridge public schools, which her children attended.

“Kathy was a very active member of the Cambridge community,” said another friend, state Representative Alice Wolf. “Children were really her area of interest. She was very outgoing and very feisty, an activist and an advocate, and she always had a smile on her face.”

Mrs. Peters loved spending time with her husband at their vacation home in Vinalhaven, Maine, their son said. A movie buff, she also frequented the Brattle Theatre and enjoyed the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where for years she attended Wednesday night rehearsals.

“She was very funny, she loved good food, and she loved fashion,” said Robbins, who added that Mrs. Peters “was a snappy dresser, always wearing an elegant scarf.”

A service has been held for Mrs. Peters, who in addition to her son and daughter leaves 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

“She loved the aesthetic experience of the world, and she found value in artistic expression,” her daughter said. “She was an excellent mother and provided many interesting experiences for us. We walked everywhere. She always wanted to enrich our lives.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at