Greek-American Billionaire Peter G. Peterson Passed Away at 91

FILE - In this April 11, 2011 file photo, Peter G. Peterson, Chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, attends a meeting of the Economic Club of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

NEW YORK – Greek-American Peter G. Peterson, the Wall Street billionaire co-founder of the private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP and philanthropist, passed away on March 20 at the age of 91. His family sent out an emailed statement announcing that Peterson died of natural causes at his New York City home.

Born on June 5, 1926 in Kearney, Nebraska, Peter George Peterson grew up in the tight-knit Greek community there, the son of George Peterson who was born Georgios Petropoulos in Greece and immigrated to the U.S. at 17. In 1923, the elder Peterson opened a 24-hour restaurant near the town’s railroad station. He married another Greek immigrant Venetia Papapavlou and the couple had three children, Peter-the eldest, Elaine who passed away at 1 years old, and John, the youngest.

Like many sons of Greek immigrants, Peterson began working in the restaurant early in his life, and never forgot the years of the Great Depression when his father would call out, “Economia!” if he found the lights had been left on or any other wastefulness, Bloomberg reported.

Peterson served as U.S. Commerce Secretary for President Richard Nixon, then utilized his global connections to become a leader in business, surviving the difficult situation during the struggle for control of Lehman Bros to become even more successful.

With co-founder Stephen Schwarzman, he established Blackstone as the world’s largest private-equity firm with 25 offices around the world. His estimated $2 billion dollar fortune put him at #14 on The National Herald’s 50 Wealthiest Greek-Americans List.

As TNH reported, his rankings on TNH’s list over the years had decreased at times, much to his credit – because he gave away a good amount of his money to philanthropic causes.

Peterson co-founded Blackstone with Schwarzman in 1985. The firm’s private equity funds own or have interests in 80 companies. The company went public in June 2007 at $31 a share. Peterson retired from the company in late 2008, selling most of his shares and receiving $1.85 billion in cash upon exiting, before taxes and meeting several trust and charitable obligations.

Peterson had released his most recent book, Steering Clear: How to Avoid a Debt Crisis and Secure Our Economic Future (Portfolio/Random House) in 2015, in which he contended that we must address our long-term fiscal challenges in order to secure a growing and prosperous economy.

Peterson studied at Northwestern University, where he graduated summa cum laude, and earned his MBA from the University of Chicago with honors. He was CEO of Bell and Howell from 1963 to 1971. In addition to his tenure as Secretary of Commerce, Peterson became chairman of Lehman Brothers in 1973. He also chaired the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2000 to 2004. He authored several books, including a 2009 memoir, The Education of an American Dreamer: How a Son of Greek Immigrants Learned His Way from a Nebraska Diner to Washington, Wall Street, and Beyond, and spoke frequently about issues of fiscal responsibility. “I do think my government service, my public crusades, and my nonprofit institutional work have been ingredients in whatever success I have had as a rainmaker,” Peterson wrote in his memoir, Bloomberg reported.

In 1981, Peterson created the Institute for International Economics to study international economic policy and “develop and communicate practical new approaches” to global problems. It was renamed the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in 2006.

Peterson devoted a great deal of his time to his foundation and other charitable activities. Established in 2008, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of the nature and urgency of key fiscal challenges threatening America’s long-term future, and to accelerating action on them. The Foundation works with leading thinkers, policy experts, elected officials and the public to build support for efforts to put America on a fiscally sustainable path. Since 2010, it has hosted an annual Fiscal Summit dedicated to addressing the nation’s long-term debt and economic future. Participants include former President Bill Clinton, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), Bill Gates, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In 2014, Peterson took part in the 3rd annual Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy, which gathered philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and public officials to discuss how to improve education in the U.S. and around the world.

Peterson married three times. His first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife Joan Ganz Cooney, founder and former chairman of Children’s Television Workshop (“Sesame Street”), his five children by his second wife Sally Hornbogen- John, Jim, David, Holly and Michael, and several grandchildren.