The Associated Press
POUGHKEEPSIE -- Once Kathryn Wasserman Davis got a taste for kayaking on the Hudson River, it wasn't easy keeping her outings limited to the calmer coves and bays, even when she reached 100 years of age.
"She always wanted to go out into the main channel and feel the wind and waves. She wanted to stay out for hours," said Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, a Poughkeepsie-based environmental and cultural preservation group that received a $20 million donation from Davis after she turned 100.
Davis' family said in a statement that the globe-trotting philanthropist died Tuesday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She also had homes in Northeast Harbor, Maine, and Tarrytown in Westchester County. She was 106.
Officials with Scenic Hudson said Davis grew to love the Hudson River while living in Manhattan as a graduate student at Columbia University and later when she and her husband lived in a hilltop home overlooking the river in suburban Tarrytown. She was introduced to Scenic Hudson by a grandson, Christopher Davis, a Hudson Valley resident who served on the group's board.
It would prove to be a good match for both parties: Kathryn Davis took up kayaking in her 90s, an activity that gave her a close-up view of the waterway and surrounding landscape the group was trying to preserve, said Sullivan, who served as her guide on the annual expeditions for 13 years.
"She loved to be there right on the river," he told The Associated Press. "She just had a love of life and deep passion for the Hudson River." Born into a wealthy carpet-manufacturing family in Philadelphia on Feb. 25, 1907, Davis' adventurous side was evident early in life. After graduating from Wellesley College in 1928, she trekked through the Caucasus Mountains on horseback during the first of what would be more than 30 visits to Russia. That inaugural trip hit a snag when bandits stole the group's food and horses.
"We ate wild berries for breakfast and spit-roasted mountain goat for dinner," she told a Moscow newspaper in 2002, "and I couldn't have been happier."
Davis met her future husband, Shelby Cullom Davis, in 1930 on a train headed to Geneva, Switzerland, where she was working toward her doctorate. They married in 1932. Her husband, an investment banker who later served as the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland during the Nixon and Ford administrations, died in 1994.
After his death, she initially focused her philanthropy on educational institutions. Several have named schools, centers or museums after her, including Wellesley and Harvard University. Scenic Hudson and preservation groups in Maine gained her financial support after she took up kayaking after turning 91, her family said.
Her $20 million donation to the New York group in her 100th year led to major riverfront park improvements in Tarrytown and neighboring Sleepy Hollow, Sullivan said.
"She wanted to create the opportunity for people to have access to the river," he said.
Her survivors include her son and daughter, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.