Deceased January 22, 2019
Some thoughts about my friend Peter:
Peter Gilbert always set the highest standards for himself but was never over solemn or pretentious about it. In fact, over on the side of nonsolemnity, during his first year at Amherst he moderated a rock show on the campus radio as “King Pete the Man with a Beat” and at his zenith appeared in a town parade, wearing a cloak and golden crown, mobbed by enthusiastic fans. He was serious about his studies and compiled a record that put him into Harvard Law School, but he also played sports and was president of his fraternity. (I remember his pleasure when, as a freshman football player, he was noticed in the Amherst Student for “rumbling over tackle” for his first score.)
Peter had robust political values. In our senior year, he joined classmates who traveled to Washington (wearing a necktie, because that’s how we did it in those days) to picket the White House in support of the sit-ins for civil rights. This became a matter of personal bravery when, several years later, he went to Mississippi and worked for voter registration in Freedom Summer. He won respect in substantial positions he held in Washington; most fascinating to me, anecdotally, was his enticing sounding later-career specialization in international “risk assessment.”
A joyous culmination was his spectacularly happy marriage to Robin. From their first days together, she put a smile on his face that never went away. That marriage, and Peter’s pride in his two sons, and in the beautiful Washington home they designed together and enjoyed with such hospitality and grace, all mark a life extraordinarily well lived.
Paul Strohm ’60
Peter and I met at Racquet Lake Boys Camp in the Adirondacks when we were 9 years old. Not only did we share a bunk, we shared a canoe for a couple of summers with me in the bow and Peter guiding in the stern. We actually won color war championships. In spring of our senior year in high school, we accidentally met while standing in line to enter the Roosevelt Hotel ballroom in Manhattan to see Louis Armstrong. We compared college application destinations and agreed that if we both got into Amherst, we would accept and be roommates. We did, and we were.
We lost touch across the country in the years of young marriages and young children. In 1982 I reached out to him for visa help for travel to Burma, and, of course, he delivered. Thereafter we spoke often and saw each other at least every few years. Whenever Peter visited the West Coast, he came with New York Times and Washington Post travel section clippings and an itinerary. We visited the actual San Andreas Fault and skied at five different Tahoe resorts in five days. A major whiteout didn’t stop us at Mt. Rose. Peter just hung out the passenger window providing driving instructions as I maneuvered our SUV back down the mountain. Another time Peter and Robin brought son Jeff (name coincidence, I think not) and family for a winter week in the Sierras. It was the very best.
Amherst, continuing education, his home within the beltway, tennis and racquet ball were all important to Peter. However, family came first and was foremost. Our telephone conversations started with his and Robin’s daily activities and travel exploits, Robin’s potting and then moved to the growth, development and successes of his grandchildren. Liberal politics came next. For the past decade the calls included another bi-coastal shared experience: prostate cancer. Unfortunately, this was one place that he was unlucky, drawing the short straw when surgery before our 50th reunion failed to eradicate it.
Russ Kirschenbaum ’60
I met Pete Gilbert when we were freshmen living on the second floor of Morrow. I was immediately in awe of his energy, enthusiasm and self-confidence. He had a deep mind and a wide smile. We were opposites in almost every way: he was Jewish, I, a Christian; he was raised in Brooklyn, I, in a small suburb north of NYC; he graduated from high-powered Brooklyn Poly-Prep and I, from a small high school with only 38 in my graduating class. His dad ran a coffee import business; mine was a clerk at Con-Edison. I wouldn’t say we bonded, but we liked each other. (I’m not sure there was anyone he didn’t get along with.) We joined Phi Gam together. He created a disc jockey show on the College radio station called “King Pete.” The show opened with the line: “and here’s the king called Peter.”
Because of his influence, I went to a march on Washington in the spring of 1960 along with hundreds of other college students. Peter was one of the Amherst College organizers. The purpose of the “march” was to demonstrate our support for the student sit-ins taking place throughout (mostly) the South. It was some 50 years later that I learned how committed he was to civil rights when he told me that as a law student at Harvard he spent the summer of 1962 in Mississippi assisting a Harvard Law graduate in civil rights litigation. In a letter to his parents that summer, he said that, among other things, they “were working on a case to demonstrate how the whole structure of the voting law was intentionally set up to disenfranchise as many Negroes as possible.”
Pam and I invited Peter (along with Joe Cady ’60 and Ric Prindle ’60) to participate in our wedding in 1963. We did not stay in close touch over the years, only talking on the phone from time to time or when he would make the annual College fund raising call. We reconnected at our 50th reunion, and it was then he offered to share bits of his letters home from Mississippi with Pam and me to include in our book: Icons of the Civil Rights Movement: Dispelling White Privilege. He mentioned somewhere along the line that he had prostate cancer, but it sounded like it was under control; apparently not, for it led to his death.
David Purdy ’60
Peter’s own comments about his career in our 50th reunion book best reflect his attitudes and priorities. “Career-wise, Amherst made me into a ‘liberal arts kind of guy.’ And after law school and a Fulbright Scholarship to Venezuela, I found that general corporate law, combined with international transactions, suited me best in my desire for variety and balance. During the 45 years I practiced law, I enjoyed learning about different businesses, handling complex transactions and dealing with cultural challenges in a multinational context. Unlike the zero sum game of litigation, the beauty of transactional legal work for me is that in most cases everyone walks away from the completed deal with a smile.” This exemplifies Peter’s commitment to conciliatory, warm relationships. Peter worked in private practice and the federal government in the Washington, D.C., area and retired from his final position at the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. in June 2010.
“Family is the single most important part of my life today,” Peter wrote. He leaves behind his cherished wife, Robin; his sons, Richard and Jeffrey, and his adored grandchildren, Samantha, Jake, Lexie, Grayson and Zach.
Dick Weisfelder ’60