U.S. philanthropists die on refugee aid mission

Car crash in Albania kills N.Y. couple who used wealth for good

War In Yugoslavia

April 20, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

They were the first reported American fatalities of the war over Kosovo. But David and Penny McCall were not there to make war; they were there to make peace.

The New York couple who died in a car accident Sunday in Albania had bypassed the usual upscale playgrounds to devote their time, their fortune -- and ultimately their lives -- to helping struggling people around the world.

Quietly, without a trace of flash, the former Madison Avenue advertising powerhouse and his wife fought to remove land mines in Cambodia, Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bring running water to remote villages. Train poor students in Harlem for work. And finance young artists with a radical edge whom few others would take a chance on.

"They lived as they died," said Richard C. Holbrooke, who was the chief negotiator with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic before the war and is now chairman of the board of Refugees International, which sponsored the McCalls' trip.

"They were highly successful and secure Americans who could have lived a comfortable life in New York with their friends," he said.

"Instead, they repeatedly chose to risk their lives in Southeast Asia and Africa and the Balkans because they really cared about people less fortunate than themselves."

The McCalls -- both longtime board members and benefactors of Refugees International -- were on a trip to aid the refugee effort when a driver lost control of their four-wheel-drive vehicle in heavy rain on a mountain road near Kukes and it fell into a ravine.

Also killed in the accident were the organization's European representative, Yvette Pierpaoli, 60, of France -- a legend in international aid circles -- and the group's Albanian driver.

President Clinton said the McCalls, "by reaching out to help the Kosovar refugees and war-affected people throughout the world, stood for the best of the American spirit," and said he and his wife were "saddened" to learn of their deaths.

The couple, who were married nearly 20 years and split their time between a Manhattan apartment and a sprawling, eclectic home in Bridgehampton, Long Island, overlooking Sagaponack Pond and the ocean -- crisscrossed the planet over the past several years identifying problems and fixing them. They spent much of their recent travels figuring out ways to remove land mines.

David McCall, 71, who was slated to succeed Holbrooke as Refugees International's chairman, helped establish the Independent Demining Assessment Center (IDAC) -- the first U.S.-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to removing land mines worldwide.

A few years ago, he paid to have modern equipment taken to Cambodia and tested in the field, said Shep Lowman, RI's vice president for policy.

With the latest crisis over Kosovo, the couple had focused on developing a satellite radio system to help refugee groups communicate, part of an effort to reunite ethnic Albanian families separated by their expulsion from Kosovo.

"One of the things they were going to do was test the equipment," Lowman said. "If it proved to be successful, his intention was to help fund some additional radio receivers if U.N. agencies wanted to use them."

Help for young artists

Penny McCall, 57, had focused much of her philanthropic effort on young artists -- particularly women and minorities.

The Penny McCall Foundation has funded some of the nation's most talented contemporary artists, among them Willie Cole, Ann Hamilton and Doris Salcedo. The foundation also supports a project in Brazil that exposes poor children to the arts.

Penny McCall, who came from a wealthy family, was co-founder of an educational project in Harlem called 14 Angels Inc., designed to train needy students in every aspect of the fashion business, from design to production to sales.

Her unconventional brand of philanthropy came from visiting places and listening to people's needs. On one trip, she brought along a puppeteer to entertain children who had lost their limbs in land mine explosions.

When Cambodian villagers told her they lacked running water, she had water pumps installed.

Naomi Barber, Penny McCall's business associate on the 14 Angels project, called them "Penny Pumps."

"They were an unusual couple in every way," Barber said. "There are few people I know of who do philanthropy in a way that is this thoughtful and connected to what people themselves want to accomplish. A lot of people give to the whales. Penny's connection is not to make herself feel good, it's listening to what it is they tell her they need."

David McCall's background is as atypical as his form of philanthropy. Born to wealth -- his grandfather founded New York Life Insurance Co. -- the family lost its fortune during the Great Depression, moved to France and returned penniless, said a friend and former colleague, Jack Sidebotham.

"David's father ended up taking a job at Metropolitan Life Company as a receptionist," Sidebotham said. "They were wired into society, and his mother arranged rich ladies' weddings."

A proud dropout

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