Wellesley’s most generous alumna passed away at the age of 106 a year ago
By RUBY CONTON ’16
The Wellesley community celebrated the life of international philanthropist and Wellesley alumna Kathryn Wasserman Davis ’28 this past Wednesday in Houghton Chapel. The celebration commemorated the one year anniversary of Davis’ passing.
Kathryn Wasserman was born on Feb. 25, 1907 in Philadelphia. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in political science from Wellesley in 1928, Davis went on to receive her master’s degree in international relations from Columbia in 1931 and her doctorate degree in international relations from the University of Geneva. Davis received an honorary doctorate of letters from Wheaton College, an honorary doctorate of languages from Middlebury College and an honorary doctorate of law from Columbia University.
She also worked on the Council of Foreign Relations from 1934 to 1935. Throughout her life, Davis was involved in a number of organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Council of American Ambassadors, the New York Stock Exchange and the Council of American Ambassadors. She served on the Board of Trustees at Wellesley for 18 years and was the College’s most generous donor. Davis received the Woodrow Wilson Award from the Smithsonian Institution in 2007, among many other awards throughout her life.
The chapel was filled with alumnae, current students and Wellesley faculty members.
“The fact that the Chapel was packed to the door is a testament to her incredible legacy,” said Berit Paxson-Tarnai ’15, a member of Wellesley Chamber Singers who performed at the event.
Among her many philanthropic initiatives, Davis will be widely remembered for the Davis Projects for Peace, which she established in 2007 on her 100th birthday. The initiative funds undergraduate college students’ grassroots projects that support peace.
The celebration began with a welcome address delivered by President H. Kim Bottomly. In her speech, Bottomly emphasized Davis’ commitment to the College.
“We are very grateful to Kathryn for her vision, her generosity, and her lifelong dedication to Wellesley. That dedication lasted nearly 85 years,” Bottomly said.
Davis’ lasting impact on the College can be seen in many ways. The Davis Museum and Cultural Center on campus is one of her many contributions. Davis also actively supported global education initiatives, student financial aid and professorships, as well as both Asian and Eastern European studies.
Davis is also known for her contributions to the scholarship program which bears her name, the Davis United World Scholars Program. The program, launched in 2000, helps United World College (UWC) graduates attend American colleges and universities by providing need-based financial aid packages. At its commencement, the program was affiliated with five U.S. institutions including Wellesley. The program is now affiliated with 91 U.S. institutions.
After President Bottomly’s welcome, three United World College students spoke about Davis’ influence on Wellesley and on their lives.
“Wellesley certainly wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for the footprints that Kathryn has left,” Ponce de Leon Barido ’05, a UWC alumna, said.
Students who spoke at the event thanked the Davis family for its generosity.
“The support of the Davis family has been a key ingredient to my self-actualization both in the professional and personal arena,” Ann Smith ’11, a UWC alumna said.
The reflections were followed with a performance by the Wellesley College Choir Chamber Singers who sang Davis’ class song.
A discussion moderated by Lulu Chow Wang ’66 then took place between H. Kim Bottomly and two former presidents of the College, Nan Keohane ’61, who served from from 1981 to 1993, and Diana Chapman Walsh ’66, who served from 1993 to 2007.
During the discussion, Wang touched upon the idea of the “quintessential Wellesley woman.”
“It seemed in many ways Kathryn was the quintessential Wellesley woman and in many ways, she captured the qualities we value,” Wang said.
The presidents also mentioned Davis’ kindness. Keohane described her as “unfailingly gracious.”
Students enjoyed seeing all three presidents in the same room.
“What I most appreciated about the event was hearing past presidents’ remarks on their relationships and perceptions of Kathryn Wasserman Davis,” Charlotte Weiss ’16 said.
A number of students also enjoyed an anecdote told by former president Nan Keohane. The summer before Davis’ passing, Keohane asked Davis why she had never become a professor, to which Davis responded, “It’s never too late.”
“That is something that I hope I can live by. Sometimes I worry that I will lose opportunities to do things, or that it is ‘too late’ to do something, but really, it isn’t and Kathryn Davis embodied that,” said Kellen Kartub ’14, a member of the Wellesley Chamber Singers.
Others mentioned Davis’ love for all things global.
“To have tea with Kathryn was to enter a globally connected intellectual salon,” Chapman Walsh recalled.
After the event, students spoke of Davis’ life-long love of learning.
“I think that Davis’ vibrant spirit and constant curiosity speak so much to the qualities we aspire to as current students at Wellesley. I left the event feeling incredibly inspired and grateful for everything she contributed to the Wellesley community,” Weiss remarked.
The event ended with the Wellesley community singing the College’s alma mater.
Afterwards, guests were treated to free cupcakes provided by local Boston cupcake truck, Kickass Cupcakes. At the end of the event, Kim Bottomly invited students to swing on the new swing, decorated with colorful ribbons, which now hangs in front of the chapel. Davis’ family donated the swing in her memory because Davis often enjoyed swinging on the former swing.
Following the ceremony, the Wellesley crew team formed a “W” with their boats on Lake Waban to give a final salute to Davis.
Students expressed how pleased they were that they attended the event.
“Considering that I didn’t know much about her before then, I learned quite a bit,” Kartub ’14 said.
Students stated that the event made them appreciate the extent of Davis’ impact on Wellesley.
“I had certainly heard her name around campus before, but I never knew specifically who she was, and it was terrific to learn about her,” Paxson-Tarnai ’15 said. “I hope someday I can be even half as successful and influential as her.”