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Leonard Davis; Helped Start AARP and Gerontology Programs at USC

January 23, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leonard Davis, who pioneered insurance plans for elderly people, helped establish the AARP and through his philanthropy made USC the nation's leading university in gerontology studies and care, has died. He was 76.

Davis, the driving force behind USC's Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center and creator of its Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, died Jan. 15 of congestive heart failure while on a cruise to South America. The New York native had lived in Palm Beach, Fla.

"Leonard Davis made an extraordinary difference in the lives of older adults," said Edward L. Schneider, dean of the USC school that bears the philanthropist's name. "His loss is immeasurable."

Andrus, a former head of the National Retired Teachers Assn. who had been frustrated with the inability of retirees to obtain insurance, met Davis in 1955 when he was an insurance broker in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Davis, concerned with aging even in his youth and certain that selling such insurance would be profitable, persuaded a Chicago insurance company to provide the coverage Andrus sought.

Three years later, Davis helped Andrus found the American Assn. of Retired Persons, now known as AARP, which among other things helped retirees obtain health, automobile and life insurance.

In 1963, Davis and his wife, Sophie, who died last September, founded the Philadelphia-based Colonial Penn Group, a pioneering insurance company designed to provide coverage for people older than 65. The company grew to be one of the nation's largest insurance underwriters before it was sold to an industrial consortium in 1984.

Davis' conviction that profits could be made in selling insurance to the little-insured elderly proved accurate. Forbes magazine once estimated his personal fortune at $230 million, and he used the money philanthropically to benefit the elderly, education and the arts.

Even though AARP switched insurance companies after it was accused of fronting for Colonial Penn, Davis and Andrus remained allies. They worked together for congressional passage of Medicare, and Davis said after Andrus' death in 1968: "The most significant contribution of Dr. Andrus was to change the perception of aging in America by the aging themselves and in the way they were regarded by others."

Davis led the effort to memorialize Andrus by building the USC Andrus Gerontology Center, and in 1976 enhanced that center by establishing his school to train personnel in treating the elderly. The Davis School was the first institution of aging research and education in the country, offering bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in gerontology.

Educated in the tuition-free days of the City University of New York, Davis and his late wife were among their alma mater's most generous donors, giving about $10 million to the school to fund biomedical and arts education programs and a performing arts center.

Davis also established the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He served on boards of various Jewish organizations and was a founding member of the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

A part-time resident of Palm Beach since 1969 and a permanent resident since 1984, Davis subsidized classical music programs there for 20 years and donated $3 million toward creation of the Raymond F. Kravis Center of Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.

"For him it was a temple of music," said violinist Isaac Stern, a close friend.

Davis is survived by two sons, Alan and Michael, and four grandchildren.

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