Greek American Billionaire Philanthropist Peter Peterson Dies at 91

Peter G. Peterson the Greek American billionaire financier and philanthropist died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.

Peterson was a former chief executive of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and a U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Richard Nixon, as well as former Federal Reserve System Chairman Paul Volcker.

Before serving as Secretary of Commerce, Peterson was Chairman and CEO of Bell & Howell, from 1963 to 1971.

From 1973 to 1984 he was Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers. In 1985 he co-founded the private equity firm, the Blackstone Group, which went public in 2007.

Peterson was Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations until retiring in 2007, after being named chairman emeritus. In 2008, he was ranked 149th on the “Forbes 400 Richest Americans” with a net worth of $2.8 billion.

He was proud of his Greek roots and in a letter back in 2010, he explained how his philanthropy originated from the values espoused by his Greek parents.

Here is what he wrote in answer to an appeal of Warren Buffet to American billionaires to give half their wealth to charity:

“I am very pleased to pledge that I plan to contribute the substantial majority of my assets to philanthropy. As you know, I am well on my way. I do so with great pleasure. And for several reasons.

My parents were Greek immigrants who came to America at age 17, with 3rd grade educations, not a word of English and hardly a penny in their pockets. Their dream was the American dream, not just for themselves but for their children as well.

“My father took a job no one else would take – – washing dishes in a steamy caboose on the Union Pacific railroad. He ate and slept there and saved virtually every penny he made. He took those savings and started the inevitable Greek restaurant, open 24 hours a day for 365 days a year for 25 years.

Throughout this period, he always sent money to his desperately poor family in Greece and fed countless numbers of hungry poor who came knocking on the back door of his restaurant. Above all else, he wanted to save so as to invest in his children’s education.

“As I watched and learned from my father’s example, I noticed how much pleasure his giving to others gave him. Indeed, today, I get much more pleasure giving money to what I consider worthwhile causes than making the money in the first place. As I checked with other philanthropists, I found this was a very common experience.”

He was born on June 5, 1926, in Kearney, Neb., one of three children of George and Venetia Peterson, who had come from southern Greece. (An uncle had changed the family name from Petropoulos.)

His father had arrived in the United States at 17, speaking no English and without any money. He took a job as a dishwasher for the Union Pacific Railroad, working, eating and sleeping in the caboose.

In 1923 the elder Mr. Peterson opened a Greek diner named the Central Café in Kearney, a small city in south-central Nebraska, and operated it for 25 years. Young Peter began working the cash register at age 8. He grew up in Kearney, nearsighted and colorblind. He graduated from Longfellow High School at the top of his class and won admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At M.I.T. he found he had no aptitude for engineering and shortly transferred to Northwestern University, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1947.