Tragic Happenings

Peter Putnam - Killed by a Drunk Driver

12817 Lake Shore Boulevard

Peter Putnam, who grew up at 12817 Lake Shore Boulevard, was killed on December 7, 1987, in Houma, Louisiana. He was riding his bicycle to work at dusk when he was hit and killed by a drunk driver. In keeping with his wishes, the Cleveland media did not publish news stories or obituary notices. Peter did not want anyone at his funeral. His body was returned to Cleveland and buried in Lake View Cemetery.

Peter was born on May 20, 1927, to John and Mildred Putnam. He graduated from University School in 1942. Because he was only sixteen years old, he stayed in Cleveland for a year studying at Case School of Applied Science and then admitted to Princeton University as a member of the class of 1946.

In 1943, he joined the U.S. Navy. After serving for three years, he resumed his education at Princeton University, graduating in 1948 with a physics degree. He later returned to Princeton, where he apprenticed under Albert Einstein and earned a Ph.D. in 1960.

The few people who remembered Peter from Princeton said he was something of a recluse. John Wheeler, his mentor at Princeton, said he was tall, good looking, charming, and extremely bright. He was a man who cared passionately about ideas. Although reclusive, Peter had a knack for making friends with offbeat people.

Because Peter’s family wanted him to be a lawyer, he enrolled at Yale University Law School. Still, he was more interested in studying the works of a brilliant English astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and pioneer in the field of cosmology. After two years, Peter left Yale and went to work for Sanders and Associates, an electronics firm for three days per week. Sanders paid him more than he needed to live on, so he sent the excess funds to Princeton.

Sanders also gave Peter some stock, which he also turned over to Princeton. He told the University to hold on to it, and by 1970, it was worth $1 million.

Union Theological Seminary in New York City hired him to teach in 1965. His classes were enormously popular. Officials at Union recalled Putnam as a brilliant loner, a man who had few close associates and failed to respect fellow faculty members who could not understand his ideas. Peter was happy for a while at Union, but the seminary, aware of the Putnam family’s affluence, began to pressure him for a substantial gift. Angry, Peter resigned from Union in the early 1970s.

Peter established the Mildred Andrews Fund on March 16, 1972. In 1990, it ranked as the fourth largest independent foundation in northeast Ohio. The private operating foundation funded higher education and art, with an emphasis on sculpture. The foundation donated funds to pre-selected organizations but did not accept applications.

In 1974, Peter became a volunteer for VISTA, a government program established in 1964 to improve people's living conditions in impoverished areas of the United States. He had been living with John Claude DeBrew, an ex-serviceman Peter had met in New York. When VISTA sent Peter to work with the rural poor in Houma, Louisiana, DeBrew went with him. He and DeBrew moved into a small apartment building in Houma.

Peter determined the VISTA program in Houma to be corrupt, so he resigned, and, for a while, he used his engineering skills to repair radio and television sets. Still determined not to use his family’s money for his personal needs, he eventually found work as a janitor on the night shift at one of the Louisiana Department of Transportation’s warehouses. It broke Mildred's heart when told that Peter had been a janitor. He idled the time away, writing philosophical essays, monitoring the family's stock portfolio, and studying art.

While most considered Peter a brilliant enigma, many of his closest associates discovered another side to Peter that few others were permitted to see. To their amazement, they learned that Peter had tripled the value of his family’s fortune by investing in risky stock ventures that panned out. They found that Peter had been well-prepared in the event of his untimely death, leaving behind an airtight will with the bulk of the estate going to the Nature Conservancy, the most significant gift the organization had ever received.