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Obituary: AARP founder, philanthropist Leonard Davis, 76

Philanthropist and insurance pioneer Leonard Davis, whose gift to the University of Southern California in 1975 established the nation’s first professional school of gerontology – the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology – died of heart failure, Jan. 15. He was 76.

A successful businessman and longtime supporter of the arts and education, Davis left many legacies. He and his late wife, Sophie, led the Colonial Penn Group of insurance companies, gave to various Jewish philanthropic causes including the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., supported the biomedical education program at the City College of New York, established the Regional Arts Foundation in Florida and was credited as a driving force behind the West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center concert hall.

“For him it was a temple of music,” said legendary violinist Isaac Stern, a close friend of Davis. “The death of both Mr. and Mrs. Davis within the past year is a terrible loss…. They respected the arts in a way that was exemplary.”

Mrs. Davis, 74, died Sept. 16.

Under the Davises, Colonial Penn became the first insurance company to provide coverage for senior citizens, who could not easily obtain life, health or automobile insurance. In 1958, Mr. Davis founded the American Association of Retired Persons with Ethel Percy Andrus, head of the National Retired Teachers Association, and, after Andrus’ death in 1968, spearheaded the effort to establish USC’s Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center. The AARP’s membership today numbers more than 33 million.

“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,” said Davis in an interview some time before his death. “And the school has done an outstanding service … by producing well-educated graduates who have successful careers in the field of aging.”

“Leonard Davis made an extraordinary difference in the lives of older adults,” said Edward L. Schneider, dean of the School of Gerontology. “His loss is immeasurable, and he will be deeply missed.”

A native of New York City, Davis began his career as a small insurance broker in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He left the insurance business in 1980, but not before accumulating a personal fortune that, according to Forbes magazine, reached as high as $230 million.

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

The Davis school – the nation’s premier institution of aging research and education – offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in gerontology, as well as a graduate level certificate.

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