Lovett ‘Pete’ Peters, founder of Pioneer Institute; at 97

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / November 19, 2010

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In the 1920s at age 15, Lovett C. “Pete’’ Peters walked into Phillips Academy in Andover and asked for admission to the prestigious boys’ boarding school. He had no money but a lot of brass, he would say later. The dean gave him a shot.

Mr. Peters parlayed his prep school education into a degree from Yale and then a long career in the oil and gas industry. He made millions and could have slipped quietly into retirement at his home in Chestnut Hill. He decided to try to change Massachusetts instead.

At age 75 in 1988, he launched the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, the work of which strongly influenced education changes in the early 1990s and honed the careers of key figures in political circles, including recent Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker.

Mr. Peters died Nov. 11 at Tufts Medical Center from a brain hemorrhage. He had suffered a fall Nov. 7 in Boston while attending a theater production when his walker got caught on a carpet, according to the Pioneer Institute. He was 97.

“Pete always felt the court he was interested in playing on was the ideas court,’’ said Baker, who was the institute’s early codirector. “He felt if you win the battle of ideas, the politics follow.’’

Mr. Peters bristled at media shorthand labeling Pioneer a conservative think tank. He won over critics to charter schools long before they became popular nationwide.

Thomas F. Birmingham, former Massachusetts Senate president and coauthor of the state’s landmark education overhaul law of 1993, said Mr. Peters played a “seminal role’’ in debates around that legislation.

“Philosophically, I’m not going to say I agreed with him,’’ Birmingham said yesterday. “But I came away very impressed by his thinking and how he seemed to be nonideological. He was a principled person, a principled thinker, and, paradoxically, I did come to agree with many of his positions.’’

Civil rights attorney Harvey A. Silverglate called Mr. Peters “a hero and a giant.’’ While they shared little common ground in politics, Silverglate said he “admired and appreciated’’ Mr. Peters’s devotion to elementary and secondary education.

“He was one of those people who put his money, as well as his time and energy, where his mouth was. His creature, the Pioneer Institute, follows Pete’s lead and carries on both his good works and his civilized sensibilities. A lot of people all throughout the political spectrum will miss him,’’ Silverglate said.

Born in Amherst, Mr. Peters was the son of Charles Adams, a soil chemist who worked at what was then Massachusetts Agricultural College, and Mary Kittredge, a homemaker.

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale on a scholarship in 1936 and went to work for Bankers Trust in New York City. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and spent his service financing aircraft production.

After the war, he worked for Laclede Gas in St. Louis, and Continental Oil (now ConocoPhillips) in Houston, where he became executive vice president.

In 1966, he moved back to Massachusetts, first to become president of the Cabot Corp., and later principal of Peters Associates.

He was married 70 years to Ruth (Stott). They met at a Yale prom in 1935, where Mr. Peters “stole her from someone else,’’ he told the Globe last year after she died at age 92.

“They were an extraordinary couple who were very important to each other and whose marriage grew stronger over the years,’’ said their son Daniel, who lives in Cincinnati and runs the Ruth and Lovett Peters Foundation, which has donated millions to education projects.

At home, Mr. Peters was never above the dirty jobs, his son recalled. “He would always pitch in. He did dishes. It was common to see him in there in the kitchen with an apron on.’’

Mr. Peters was fervent in his belief in the supremacy of the free market, limited government, and the importance of education for all, Daniel said.

“He wanted to make a difference, especially for low-income kids, those most in need who are getting really clobbered by the system,’’ Daniel said. “Dad’s view was these kids deserve a chance; we can do better by them, and it was simply un-American not to.’’

The Peters couple conquered problems with a can-do spirit and Yankee ingenuity. Concerned about their son Sam, who has cerebral palsy, they raised $250,000 over 12 years to found a group home in Needham where he lives with others.

Their son Charles Adams Peters II died of an aortic aneurysm at age 46 in 1990.

Mr. Peters never retired. He would don his suspenders and suit and take the T from Newton to the Pioneer Institute offices on Devonshire Street several days each week until his health began to fail earlier this year.

He served on several boards, including those of the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust, the Foundation for Economic Education, and Abbott Academy.

In addition to his sons, Mr. Peters leaves a daughter, Ruth Binkerd Peters Stephenson of Houston; a sister Maude Peters Kozlowski of Carlsbad, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 11 at the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill. Burial will be at Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at