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Kathryn W. Davis; used millions to help Wellesley College, others

Ms. Davis’s porch in Tarrytown provided views of the Hudson River in New York. There she became active in the League of Women Voters.
Ms. Davis’s porch in Tarrytown provided views of the Hudson River in New York. There she became active in the League of Women Voters.Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times/file 2007/The New York Ti

WASHINGTON — Kathryn Wasserman Davis, a globetrotting philanthropist who provided the start-up funds that her husband, Shelby Cullom Davis, used to become one of America’s most successful investors, has died. She was 106.

She died Tuesday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla., her family said. No cause was given.

Dr. Davis’s father, Joseph Wasserman, was the longtime chairman of the Artloom Corp. of Philadelphia, a maker of Wilton rugs. His fortune survived the market crash of 1929 because he was “part of a canny minority who kept their money in government bonds.” John Rothchild wrote in his 2003 book, “The Davis Dynasty: Fifty Years of Successful Investing on Wall Street.”


In 1947, Dr. Davis dipped into her share of that fortune to provide seed capital to her husband, who had quit his post in the administration of Governor Thomas Dewey of New York to form Shelby Cullom Davis & Co., investing mostly in insurance stocks.

The family says she gave him $100,000; Rothchild wrote that it was $50,000. Either way, by his death in 1994, Shelby Davis had turned that initial stake into an $800 million fortune, making Forbes magazine’s annual list of 400 richest Americans from 1987 until his death.

Dr. Davis was a prolific philanthropist. Her alma-mater, Wellesley College, was one of the top beneficiaries of her giving. A onetime trustee and longtime benefactor, she pledged $11 million to the college in 1998 for international studies. The money was directed to be used to enhance the expertise of the faculty, attract more students from the former Soviet Union, and bolster study-abroad programs for Wellesley students.

The Davises also endowed two professorships at the college and established the Davis Museum and Cultural Center.

“Through her philanthropy, Kathryn had a lasting impact on Wellesley, having contributed more than $50 million to the college over her lifetime,” H. Kim Bottomly, president of Wellesley, said Tuesday in her blog on the college’s website.


The couple also donated $10 million to the Russian Research Center at Harvard University.

On her 100th birthday in 2007, Dr. Davis pledged $1 million to carry out the ideas of 100 college students on how to promote peace. She provided additional $1 million grants in 2008, 2009, and 2010 for what became known as the Davis Projects for Peace.

“I think Gandhi was very smart, because he said what people need is to talk more not to their friends, but to their enemies, and that will bring about peace,” Ms. Davis said in a biographical video on the project’s website. “And that’s what I’m hoping to do.”

Last May, the American Museum of Natural History in New York dedicated the Kathryn W. Davis Science Teaching Classroom in recognition of her donations to its master’s degree program for science teachers. She told the Wall Street Journal that her philanthropy was guided by the notion that it is more fun “to live in a world that you are helping to get better.”

Kathryn Stix Wasserman was born in 1907 in Philadelphia, one of five children of Joseph Wasserman and the former Edith Stix. She attended Miss Madeira’s school for girls in Washington, then Wellesley College, graduating in 1928.

Her adventurous nature and global view were in evidence a year after she graduated from college, when she traveled with her sister to Russia and took a horseback trip into the Caucasus Mountains.


A few years later, she met her future husband on a train from Paris to Geneva, where they were attending summer school. They married after completing their master’s degrees at Columbia University in 1931.

She went on to earn a doctorate in political science from the University of Geneva in 1934, writing her thesis on “The Soviets at Geneva: The USSR and the League of Nations, 1919-1933.” It was in Geneva that she refined her lifelong belief in the need for what she called a global “peace force.”

During their doctoral studies in Geneva, “Shelby and I saw firsthand the workings of the very first world disarmament conference,” she said in 2006 in videotaped remarks to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “We heard all the right words, but what Shelby and I saw was a relentless preparation for war — by Germany toward its neighbors, by Italy toward Ethiopia, and by Japan, panting to take Manchuria.”

Back home, Dr. Davis worked briefly at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City before the couple bought a house in Tarrytown, N.Y., and began raising a family. She became active in the League of Women Voters.

She also gave $20 million to Scenic Hudson, a Hudson River environmental and cultural preservation group. She told the group she had fallen in love with the river while living in Manhattan as a graduate student, according to the Associated Press.


Dr. Davis was an honorary trustee of the Heritage Foundation, which runs the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies. The couple’s philanthropic efforts supported the Kathryn W. and Shelby Cullom Davis ’30 International Center at Princeton, among other organizations.

She leaves her daughter, Diana Davis Spencer of Washington; her son, Shelby M.C. Davis of Jackson, Wyo., the founder of Davis Selected Advisors; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.