Yale '62 - Obituaries - Pierce Gerety

Pierce Gerety

Born: September 7, 1941
Died: September 2, 1998

Pierce was born in New York City and attended Fairfield Preparatory School and Georgetown Preparatory School before Yale. He was a History major, a member of Silliman, and on the Senior Advisory Board. He graduated Magna Cum Laude.

Pierce was born into a family that valued public service. His father Pierce Jr. was appointed by President Eisenhower to supervise the admission of refugees entering the United States after World War II. His uncle was a retired Archbishop and prominent civil rights advocate as a priest in New Haven in the 1960's. Another uncle was a Superior Court Judge.

Pierce lived an extraordinary life dedicated to helping refugees trapped in the maelstroms of war and disaster around the world, only to perish on the Swissair Flight 111 on September 2, 1998, off the coast of Nova Scotia, after attending a family reunion and a sea kayaking trip.

Pierce worked for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as director of operations for the region of central Africa encompassing Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika, an assignment that took him into Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. He was admired by other humanitarian workers for his coolness in the face of trouble. "He had probably been in more physically dangerous situations than anyone else in the refugee field," said Robert P. De Vecchi, the retired president of the International Rescue Committee, which originally hired Pierce to work with Cambodian refugees in Thailand. "He was equally comfortable briefing a head of state or pulling a Vietnamese fishing boat out of the water."

Pierce's brother Tom, who is president of Amherst College, said, "Pierce was shot at a lot. It seemed like he was always courting risk and always pretty much got away scot-free." It was ironic, Dr. Gerety added, that his brother lost his life on one of the world's safest airlines, flying to Geneva, one of the world's safest cities.

Pierce studied theology and philosophy at the Institute Catholique in Paris, where he found time to set up a soup kitchen. He considered becoming a Roman Catholic priest until he fell in love with a young Frenchwoman, Marie de la Soudiere. They married and went off to India to work for the Catholic Relief Services.

After a couple of years Pierce returned home to attend Harvard Law School, receiving his law degree in 1971. Ignoring more lucrative prospects, he became a Legal Aid lawyer in New York City. "He was a little impatient with American law," Dr. Gerety said of his brother. "He wanted to be out and among people in crisis and need."

In 1979, Pierce approached the International Rescue Committee and volunteered to go to Thailand and help with Cambodian refugees who had fled their homeland.