Peter John Davies — who died March 25, 2020 at 92 — was a man of the world. But through a lifetime of travels, from Bombay to Bangkok to Brazil, he and his wife Phyllis always found their way back to Riverdale.
Among foreign leaders and international non-governmental organization heads, he was best known for his efforts to stamp out world hunger with institutions like Meals for Millions — a hunger relief and rural development agency — and InterAction, an umbrella organization for American NGOs. But in Riverdale, he devoted himself to organizations like the local chapter of the United Nations Association, Riverdale Neighborhood House, and the Bronx Arts Ensemble.
He was born in London in 1927 to an American mother and a British father. But when his parents’ marriage dissolved in 1939, he and his mother and siblings sailed for New York, taking up residence in Greenwich Village.
He attended Elizabeth Irwin High School before enrolling at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. But his time at St. John’s was interrupted by World War II. His moral and political outlook led him to join the Young People’s Socialist League and search for a way to aid the war effort without becoming a combatant, so he took a leave from St. John’s and entered the Merchant Marine Academy. It proved to be a life-defining experience.
When his ship docked in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, he sought out like-minded young Indian socialists who offered to introduce him to Mahatma Gandhi. The encounter inspired him to pursue a career in international development.
Returning to St. John’s for a bachelor’s degree after the war, he continued his education at Harvard, receiving a master’s in public administration from the Littauer Center in 1951.
He began his career in publishing, working at the Council on Foreign Relations with economist Eugene Staley on the book “The Future of Underdeveloped Countries” at a time when nations around the globe were struggling to throw off the yoke of colonialism. Later, at McGraw Hill Publishing, he rose to the rank of assistant editorial director.
Next came four years with Business International, a worldwide consulting company. As he would later write in his autobiography, “I focused on providing international business advice to Fortune 500 companies that were exporting to or investing overseas.”
During this time, in the early 1950s, his family settled in Riverdale.
In 1961, he joined the Kennedy White House as special assistant to the special assistant for trade policy. “The longer the title, the lower the job,” he liked to quip, “but I did have White House stationery.” This was followed by a stint as director of the private enterprise division of the newly formed U.S. Agency for International Development, more commonly known as USAID.
In 1964, he became deputy managing director of Coromandel Fertilizers Ltd., in Andhra Pradesh, India, and subsequently worked for USAID in Bangkok as rural development director, and in Rio de Janeiro as the USAID director for the Office of Health, Nutrition and Food for Development.
In 1971, he became vice president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation for the Western Hemisphere, based in New York City, and the family returned to Riverdale.
Between 1976 and 1984, he was president and chief executive of the Meals for Millions/Freedom from Hunger Foundation, with offices in California and New York. MFM sought to improve the lives of people in poor communities in Africa, Latin America and Asia, through integrated community development and applied nutrition programs.
The family didn’t leave Riverdale again until 2005. Phyllis attended New York University Law School and subsequently worked for Assemblyman Oliver Koppell, as an executive assistant for the city’s finance commissioner, counsel to the city’s tax commission, and as a lawyer in the city’s law department.
In 1984, he was requested by his peers to become the first and founding president and chief executive of InterAction, the largest alliance of international development and relief agencies, whose member organizations “collectively serve the world’s poor and vulnerable, with a shared belief that we can make the world a more peaceful, just and prosperous place.” InterAction works to be a leader in the global quest to eliminate extreme poverty and vulnerability, strengthen human rights and citizen participation, safeguard a sustainable planet, promote peace, and ensure the dignity of all people.
Despite his travels, he was deeply involved in a number of Riverdale causes, including the local chapter of the United Nations Association — founded by fellow Riverdale residents and college friends Peter and Cora Weiss — the Bronx Arts Ensemble, and Riverdale Neighborhood House, where he served as president of the board.
He spearheaded the successful fundraising drive to construct the Dodge Center building for early childhood education at the neighborhood house’s Mosholu Avenue campus, as well as local drives to clear a minefield in Cambodia in 2002, and to aid victims of Indonesia’s tsunami in 2004.
An avid sailor and tennis player, he was fond of inviting his neighbors to join him for day sails on Long Island Sound. His tennis attire evoked memories of Wimbledon in days gone by — a white V-neck sweater with navy and crimson stripes on the V.
He spent his last 15 years at Kendal-on-Hudson in Sleepy Hollow, and his survived by his wife of 70 years Phyllis (nee Botner) and sons Kenneth and Christopher, along with their spouses, Margrethe Juncker and Carina Borsch, and six grandchildren.