Tributes Honor Peter Geithner, “A Champion for Justice”
Peter F. Geithner, a former president of The LAFF Society who had worked at the Ford Foundation for 28 years and was described as “a champion for justice who served the cause of human dignity with distinction”, died July 29 at his home in Orleans, Mass. He was 84.
Peter was Ford’s first representative in China and helped develop programs in support of education, public health and economic development there and in his positions as deputy representative in India, representative for Southeast Asia and director of the Developing Country Programs.
He was a graduate of Dartmouth College and served four years as a Naval aviator before returning for advanced study, earning a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
He went to work for Columbia Carbon International and then spent six years with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), serving in what are now Zimbabwe and Zambia and in Washington, D.C., before joining the Ford Foundation in 1968. He retired from Ford in 1996.
Among his other activities, he was an adviser to the Asia Center at Harvard University, the China Medical Board, the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He was on the boards of several organizations, including the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, the China Center for Economic Research and the Center for the Advanced Study of India.
Following are just some of the many tributes to him, some of which are adapted from remarks made at the gathering in New York City and others that were written for the newsletter. They show clearly the scope of his personal interests and professional activities, and the impact both had on a wide range of individuals.
The Gifts My Father Gave Me by Timothy Geithner
When we were kids, living in New York after India, I was 14, riding bikes with my brother Jonathan on a Saturday on the way back from watching a high school football game.
A bike pulled alongside me with two kids, one on the back, both about my age, but larger. The one pedaling asked me to give him my bike. I kept pedaling. He reached over casually and punched me. I fell off. The second jumped off the back of their bike and rode off on mine.
I got on the back of Jon’s bike and we rode home.
I told my father what had happened. He said simply, “Let’s go get it back.”
We got in the car, my brothers Jon and Dave along for the adventure. We drove through the neighborhood of the incident, slowly tracking the grid. Implausibly, we came upon the two assailants with my bike.
My father calmly pulled alongside them and asked for the bike back. Inexplicably, they complied. Then my father told the one on my bike to get in the car and he did.
With him and my bike in the back of the station wagon, my father said he was going to take him to the police station. I don’t know how my father knew where that was, but he drove there.
As we drove, the apprehended kid was quivering in the back. He started to cry and to plead to be let out. I thought we should let him go, too, but my father kept driving.
My father stopped just outside the police station—and let him go.
My father didn’t say much then, and I don’t remember any attempt to convey deep lessons. He didn’t brag or tell others about it. He didn’t claim courage or virtue in what he had done.
But he had demonstrated some virtues: The importance of getting close to what is uncomfortable. A willingness to do the uncomfortable thing rather than run from it, to protect and defend us. The importance of seeking some accountability. The importance of empathy and forgiveness.
My father grew up in Philadelphia where his father was a carpenter. He went to Northeast High School. Not tall in stature, and before the jump shot, he played basketball in high school and college. They called him “Beetle”, I guess because he was small. And also “the Hershey Kid”, because of his love for chocolate.
He was a life guard on the Ocean City Beach Patrol. Went to college on an ROTC scholarship. Was a pilot for the Navy, flew off carriers and missed the two wars of his youth. He came back to go to graduate school to study international affairs and married the sister of his best friend in college, different from him and his perfect complement.
After a brief experience in business he went to work for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and then, of course, he came to the Ford Foundation, where he stayed for almost 30 years.
Not the typical path to philanthropy, if there is a typical path.
He was conservative, politically, but he chose a field where he would end up working with people with very different views of politics and supporting causes not typically associated with the conservative tradition in American politics.
He didn’t talk about his work much, just as he didn’t talk about himself much, so I didn’t have that much sense of what he did until much later in life.
One of the gifts of the last few weeks of his life was the chance to read about him through the eyes of his colleagues and friends. This is a rare and special thing, to see our parents as they were seen by others.
One wrote: “Only deeply empathetic people listen as well as he did or have his self-deprecating sense of humor when they speak. That, above all, is what I learned from him: unless you erase the self, you cannot be a force for the good.”
Wrote another: “He was candid, clear, dedicated to what he believed in, funny.... I will always be grateful for the way Peter created a space for divergent opinions to interact, and for our work to be made better as a result of this”.
And another wrote: “Peter’s dinner table debating style was patriotic, forensic and grinding. He seemed often to relish being in a minority of one. But an argument was always civilized and orderly, and there was never any animosity or emotional self-indulgence. Quite infuriating actually.... I learned from Peter valuable work habits like loyalty, thoroughness, diligence, tenacity, mutual respect, self effacement, tolerance and constancy.”
The virtues my father passed on, to his children and those who knew him and worked with him, are great and rare things:
Respect for people with different values and beliefs.
The ability to listen and empathize.
The ability to build relationships of deep trust and loyalty.
The care to listen and observe.
Deference, which he showed to the aspirations and plans of those institutions and individuals Ford supported.
Patience, the knowledge that the return on the investments Ford was making could take years, perhaps a generation.
Comfort in being separate and apart in his opinions, going against the grain of many.
And the ability to disagree without “animosity”.
He gave us, and the Ford Foundation gave us, the amazing gift of living in the broader world as children—in Africa, India and Thailand—before we all went to college. And we traveled everywhere. All the time. This was all we knew then, but I think even when we were very young we knew it was a rare and special thing. To see early in life the stark differences in how so much of the world lives is a deep and subtle gift. It can help with empathy and humility. It can help you better learn to see things through the eyes of others.
He showed us we could do work that was consequential, that we loved, and that we could work with people we liked and admired.
We loved and admired him.
Dedicated and Tireless by Mary Zurbuchen
In Spring 1992, I was shopping in a Berkeley electronics store for a desktop computer
to ship to Jakarta. The helpful middle-aged salesman told me he was China-born, and as we looked over the available hardware I explained that I would soon move to Indonesia to head the Ford Foundation’s office in Southeast Asia. He looked at me quizzically for a moment, then asked: “So maybe you know my friend Peter Geithner?” My amazed reply: “Why, he’s my boss!”
The man I encountered in that computer store on San Pablo Avenue was a scholar from a leading Chinese economics faculty. His fellowship from the Ford Foundation had supported advanced study in the United States, but like many Chinese academics abroad after June 1989, he was uncertain about going home. His fellowship was over, but he still felt a close tie to Peter, who had helped and advised him.
This episode was just one of many revealing the reach of Peter Geithner’s influence. I worked with him when I was a Program Officer in the Jakarta (1983-87) and New Delhi (1988-91) field offices, and most closely during the years from 1992 to 2000 when I served as Representative in Jakarta and he was Asia Regional Director in New York.
Peter had worked in Foundation offices in India and Thailand and over time was involved with its work in Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Singapore and Indonesia. He launched the Foundation’s programs in China and spearheaded the opening of its office in Beijing in 1988. As I moved to Jakarta he was working toward re-opening a Foundation office in Vietnam.
He had unparalleled knowledge of the Foundation’s program history throughout Asia and a remarkable memory of particular grants, institutions and individuals across the region. During decades of involvement with Asia, language learning was never his strong suit, yet he could effortlessly recall names and positions of people the Foundation had supported in more than a dozen countries.
Peter’s networks and relationships were an asset for all staff who worked with him, and within the New York office he was a skilled, articulate advocate for field office programs and local decision-making. No matter which dignitary or hopeful official sought a meeting with the Asia Director, Peter would understand relevant context, consider whether a potential request might be considered under field office priorities, and dispatch a note to one or another Representative reporting on the meeting. He made certain that Asian realities and Foundation colleagues were well received and represented on 43rd Street, a role that was hard to replicate after the Foundation eliminated regional director positions.
Peter was not loquacious, and tended to communicate on a “need to know” basis. Still, he kept a close watch on field-office operations, including the language of mundane documents. On one occasion he took exception to a single phrase in a grant recommendation I wrote in India because it suggested that Tibetans in exile might view Tibet as their “country”. At the time, of course, he was on the verge of final approval for the Beijing office.
He was not always in accord with colleagues in his politics or his perceptions of where the Foundation’s highest interests might lie. He certainly must have felt like a contrarian in the aftermath of the 1989 violence at Tiananmen, when many of his Foundation colleagues were urging that Ford leave China. After rushing back from Beijing for days of hurried meetings in Washington and New York, looking drawn and exhausted, Peter spoke to gathered Foundation staff in the basement auditorium, making a powerful case for keeping the office open in order to stand by the many Chinese who looked to the Foundation as a resource for inspiration and change.
Because he was exceptionally prepared and familiar with field office contexts, Peter’s visits to Jakarta and the Bangkok and Manila sub-offices were genuinely welcomed by Southeast Asia program staff. There was no need to create events to convince him that our work was important, or to impress him that the Foundation had access to the “right” people. Peter wanted to listen to staff talk about their area of responsibility: how they defined and analyzed problems of rural poverty or reproductive health, say, and shaped a strategic approach to issues through a portfolio of grants.
He put close, focused questions to program officers that helped them become sharper and more insightful in explaining their work. He used his understanding of regional issues to draw relevant comparisons and conclusions across different settings. Peter saw that Representatives had unique responsibilities and needed support from peers, so he brought all the Asia Reps together in periodic meetings. These “Rep Raps” became a valued opportunity for building solidarity and shaping cross-region programming.
Working with Peter in Southeast Asia, I learned to be a more careful listener and more nuanced communicator. One experience still stands out: a formal meeting with senior leaders of the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy in Hanoi in 1992, where I listened to Peter field queries from men who were clearly wary of American foundations yet eager to see their country advance. In order to strengthen and modernize Vietnam’s economy, they asked, what policies did Mr. Geithner think should be put in place? What decisions needed to be made, according to the Ford Foundation?
Peter was unequivocal as he explained that the Foundation did not see its role as telling Vietnam’s leaders what to do. Rather, the Foundation could use its contacts and resources to bring Vietnamese experts together with researchers, policy analysts and others outside the country who could be engaged in thinking about Vietnam’s concerns, hopefully providing a path for the best answers for Vietnam to emerge.
It was a masterful response that voiced the potentials of the American philanthropic heritage as well as understanding and acceptance of Vietnam’s still-cautious opening to the world.
Peter was tireless in his dedication to the Foundation, and for him, I believe, the Foundation was never about advancing a single slogan or vision of international development.
He represented the engaged professionals who never take themselves more seriously than they take their work. His colleagues could more deeply feel the privilege of playing their roles in the international sphere through his wise, considerate and insightful example.
Mary Zurbuchen now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and is an independent scholar and consultant to the Henry Luce Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies.
With Grace and Good Humor by Joan Kaufman
After I left the Foundation in 2001, I continued to work with Peter at Harvard University, the China Medical Board and, of course, LAFF.
I met Peter when he hired me as a consultant in the early 1990s, just after receiving my doctorate at Harvard School of Public Health in the department that Lincoln Chen, his close friend and Ford colleague from India days, was chairing. As a consultant I worked closely with him, Jose Barzelatto and Lincoln to figure out whether Ford should start a reproductive health program and portfolio in the China office, as I had spent four years in the 1980s in China for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA).
I then joined the Ford China office as the second program officer for reproductive health. Peter had left the Foundation at that point but I looked forward to his visits to China as he always came by the office to schmooze and catch up.
When I returned to Boston and Harvard in 2001, he convinced me to set up the Boston LAFF chapter with him, and we worked together on that as well as on Lincoln's Health Equity Initiative, the China Medical Board and various Harvard China events.
Peter was always a wonderful mentor and adviser to me on career decisions, China issues and myriad other things. I will miss his counsel and friendship. His contributions and leadership on China philanthropy and civil society work was incomparable and his loss will be felt keenly in China.
He was a wonderful man who made his vast contributions with grace and good humor.
Joan Kaufman is director of Columbia Global Centers/East Asia in Beijing.
He asked great questions by Charles Bailey
Peter Geithner interviewed me for my first job with the Ford Foundation. It was the spring of 1972 and he was the deputy representative in the New Delhi office. Peter was a thoughtful and quiet guy, and asked great questions. We overlapped for a year in New Delhi before he moved to Bangkok to become Ford’s representative in Thailand.
Fast forward a decade and I’d just arrived in Sudan in a new position as program officer for land and water resources. The Trustees met in Nairobi that summer of 1982 and Peter was there. On the way back to New York he stopped in Khartoum to see how I was doing. We spent a couple days together in the Gezira Scheme talking about the possibilities.
Peter was Asia, but this was Africa. No matter. He cared and he of course asked great questions. No place was too remote for Peter.
He believed the Foundation could achieve great things but, as he often observed, “Ideas are fine, but ideas plus money are better.”
Later, when he had moved to China and I to Bangladesh, he brought one of his newly minted Chinese staff members to Dhaka, Zhang Ye, and quietly explained to her how such a capitalist place worked. Again the mentor, and he of course had suggestions—mind you, only suggestions—for me.
Much later, when I was in Hanoi and he had “retired”, I asked him to evaluate our international affairs grant-making in Vietnam. As usual, he knew the people and the issues and was extremely clear in his vision of what more needed to be done. It was almost always about investing in people and core institutions.
Peter cared deeply, could relate the most complicated issues clearly and elegantly, and always knew what to do next. And he found and brought together the people who could make it happen.
In those occasional moments of the absurd, I’ll never forget his appreciative laugh. His eyes would light and he would giggle.
Charles Bailey, an adviser on the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, wrote about co-operative efforts between the United States and Vietnam in dealing with the long-term effects of the chemical in an article titled Agent Orange: Looking Forward in the Summer 2015 issue of the newsletter.
A True Gentleman by William Alford
After he left the Ford Foundation and was at Harvard University, Peter continued to offer wise and prudent advice that was much appreciated by myself, Ezra Vogel, Bill Kirby and all others who were fortunate to work with him.
He was a true gentleman, something I had learned in the early 1980s.
I showed up for my first meeting at Ford a half hour early, dressed, let us say, a tad inappropriately, being a young professor from California at the time and given to dark shirts. Peter, without saying anything about my attire, asked if I would accompany him on a quick errand he had to attend to.
We walked over to Brooks Brothers where Peter surveyed a row of white button-down Oxford cloth shirts and then turned to me, saying that he thought that I would look quite smart in one. He urged me to try one on and then, once I had done so, indicated that, since it looked so good on me and I had already opened it, I might as well buy it and wear it rather than fold it messily in my bag.
And so it was that I appeared at my first Ford meeting “looking the part”, without being made to look foolish!
William Alford is a law professor at Harvard University, vice dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies, Director of East Asian Legal Studies and chair of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability.
“A True Mentor” by Fran Korten
Peter Geithner was a true mentor for me. In 1978, when he was the Director for Southeast Asia, he hired my husband, David Korten, and me as the first couple the Foundation had ever hired. (The personnel office trembled: Do they need two houses?!)
Peter taught me early to focus my grants so they would reinforce each other, adding up to a much more powerful impact than the sum of the grants. He, together with Walt Coward, John Cool and my husband, guided me as we focused on making significant changes in the Philippines’ National Irrigation Administration. We helped that huge bureaucracy learn to work in a collaborative, rather than a top-down, way with the farmers it intended to serve.
The methods we used were later used by other offices working on community-based strategies in forestry, fisheries and pastures. The Foundation was able to help millions of people get stronger rights over the resources on which they depended and get the support they needed to manage those resources sustainably.
Without Peter's guidance (and his stalwart defense of these approaches from criticism in New York: “too narrow”), I would never have been able to work the way I did in the Philippines and later in Indonesia. By the time I got to the New York office in 1992 and applied these same methods in the U.S. forestry sector, they were well established. Jan Jaffe and Bill Duggan had incorporated many of these ideas into the training for program officers.
Fran Korten is the Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network, which publishes YES! Magazine.
A Lasting Legacy by Jing Lu
I’m representing 618 graduates from the Ford Foundation-sponsored economics training program in China from 1985 to 1994. Mr. Geithner was instrumental in spearheading this 10-year grant-supporting program, as he was the first representative to China for the Ford Foundation.
This program sponsored largely top United States professors to go to China to teach young Chinese scholars economic theories and market practices, as China started to open its door and embarked on economic reforms.
This program was tough to get in. We were already graduate students at top universities in China to begin with, but needed to pass a series of extra tests to be admitted. We were indeed the chosen ones. We proudly call the program “Ford Class” and label ourselves as Ford Class 1, Ford Class 2….
Most of the 618 graduates are in China, engaging in a wide variety of careers. College professors account for a significant portion, as intended originally by the program. We also have business administrators, government officials, fund managers and many others. I can comfortably claim that there are Ford alumni in all major universities, government ministries and banks in China, making important decisions and contributing to society.
This economics training program had an enormous impact not only on the macro side of economics education and economic reforms in China but also on the micro side of our personal lives and careers. For that, we are eternally grateful for Mr. Geithner and will forever remember him.
Teacher and Friend by Junko Chano
When you were the director of the Asia Program at the Ford Foundation you kindly invited me to work for you….
Although I had only nine months with you as a visiting fellow, I am still struck by how much I learned from you during that period.
I vividly recall your enthusiasm in promoting and supporting philanthropy and the nonprofit sector in Asia, where the Foundation operated several field offices….While you oversaw all these offices, you extended your interest to Japan, where efforts to promote civil society and the nonprofit sector were in full swing.
The idea to organize a conference in Tokyo with active philanthropic organizations throughout Asia was thus developed, and broadly supported by many philanthropic leaders in Asia who had a great deal of trust in and respect for you.
After you left I moved on to the Peace and Social Justice Program with the project you had initiated. The conference took place a year later and was a great success, something which I still believe owed much to your efforts and extensive network.
Nearly 20 years have passed since then, and I am glad to report to you that philanthropy has been playing a significantly greater role for the betterment of Japanese society these days.
Junko Chano, director of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, wrote this in the form of a letter to Peter Geithner when she learned of his death.
Dedication and Enthusiasm by Junichi Chano
Since its inception, the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership (CGP) has been guided by the wisdom and foresight of Mr. Geithner. In addition, CGP was very fortunate and extremely honored to have the opportunity to work closely with Mr. Geithner in his role of core consultant for our Intellectual Exchange program for more than 10 years.
He will be remembered for his profound dedication and boundless enthusiasm for the work international organizations and institutions were conducting in Japan, in particular, and Asia, in general.
We treasure the honor of having collaborated with him so closely over the years.
Junichi Chano is Executive Director of the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.
Professionalism and Warmth by Charles Keyes
Peter had done much to encourage me in the development of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington and the Northwest Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies. This encouragement included not only grants that Ford made but also the personal interest Peter took in my efforts. He made several trips to Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.
I was struck not only by his professionalism but also by his personal warmth. That the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington is one of the major centers for Southeast Asian studies in the United States is very much a consequence of Peter’s support and encouragement.