Peter Biehl, who along with his wife channeled the pain of their daughter Amy’s murder by a mob in South Africa into a passion for alleviating poverty and violence there, has died. He was 59.
Biehl, of La Quinta, died Sunday at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage of complications from colon cancer, which was recently diagnosed.
“He was an action man. He wanted to understand the problems of South Africa and do something to solve those problems,” said Linda Biehl, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 38 years. “It brought out his strengths and compassion. It brought out who he truly is.”
In 1993, their 26-year-old daughter--a Fulbright scholar who worked with disadvantaged South Africans--was stoned and stabbed as a crowd shouted anti-white slogans. Four black men were convicted in her death.
The Biehls supported the killers’ amnesty as South Africa moved from bloody unrest to a post-apartheid government. Then they hired two of the men to work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, which since 1997 has given $5 million to a variety of social programs and business projects in and around Cape Town.
“He was a mentor to these two young men,” Linda Biehl, 58, said of her husband’s forgiveness. “And they loved him.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu said in a prepared statement: “What was so remarkable was not only that they forgave the killers of their daughter, but that they went so far as to rehabilitate them.”
‘A Profound Loss to South Africa’
Compassionate and with many ideas for new ventures, Peter and Linda Biehl worked as a team, taking on the steep learning curve of the international aid business one step at a time.
“He was an incredibly rare person,” said Sharon Gelman, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Artists for a New South Africa, which works closely with the Amy Biehl Foundation. “He was amazingly smart, and the way he dealt with the loss of his daughter set an example.... He was a wonderful, warm, embracing, giving, intelligent, incredibly committed human being, and I adored him. His passing is a profound loss to South Africa.”
The foundation has funded job-training and after-school programs, which provide food, tutors, arts instruction and recreation--all to prevent youth violence. It has provided scholarships for South African students to study in the United States, started health programs that provide HIV and AIDS counseling, and launched a first-aid training effort.
“We’ve lost a great leader and visionary,” said Ashleigh Murphy, project manager for the Amy Biehl Foundation in Cape Town. “He had an amazing belief in the progress of South Africa. He taught this country about forgiveness and reconciliation. He was also helping to teach the stories of South Africa to the rest of the world--and his story was one of those stories.”
Biehl taught by example, she said.
“He had a great sense of humor and warmth,” Murphy said, “and when you were with him you always felt comfortable and open, no matter who you were. He was always thinking of the next step, but I have no doubt that the work of the foundation will continue.”
Trevor Murphy, the foundation’s former manager who is now studying international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., agreed.
“It’s a huge loss,” he said. “He was a mentor to me and a lot of other young people looking to enter the world of international development. He was also a close personal friend who introduced me to my wife and linked me forever to the struggles of South Africa.... [His death leaves] a huge void in my life.”
Peter Biehl, who left his marketing career to devote his time to South Africa, wanted the foundation to do more than just throw money at the poor, his wife said. He wanted to provide services that South Africans said they wanted, create jobs and find ways that the foundation could sustain itself by generating income.
“He used his business skills and applied them to our social agenda,” Linda Biehl said. “He wanted to help, not in a patronizing, do-gooder kind of way, but in a developmental way.”
The foundation, which employs 87 people, built a golf driving range outside Cape Town to provide youth recreation and jobs. A chain of bakeries produces “Amy’s Bread--The Bread of Hope and Peace.” Besides jobs and cash, the bakeries provide a message with each sale: The bags have HIV and AIDS prevention information printed on them.
In the communities where the foundation carries out its work, Peter and Linda Biehl are known as tamkhulu and makhulu: grandfather and grandmother.
“He was interested in doing anything for the African people. To see that passion in his eyes was extraordinary,” said Ashlie Gravley, 26, one of numerous young interns the Biehls have sent to South Africa to work on foundation projects. “They still go through a lot of pain over Amy’s death, but I think this helps them cure it a bit.
“He knew that this is what Amy would have wanted.”
The Biehls Met in Sunday School
Peter Biehl was born in Chicago in 1943. He and Linda met at age 9 in Sunday school and began dating when they were 16. They moved west together, graduating from Whittier College. They were married between their junior and senior years. He is survived by three children and three grandchildren. Services are pending.
“My dad was awesome,” said daughter, Kim Biehl, 36, of San Clemente. “He is the most selfless person I’ve ever known. He put everybody before him.”
In recent years, as the foundation grew, the Biehls spent most of their time in South Africa. It was there, in mid-February, that Peter Biehl began having stomach cramps. He thought he had picked up a local bug. But when he returned to the United States, his health worsened, and by early March, his kidneys, then his liver, stopped functioning.
Kim Biehl recalled that after Amy’s death, her father wrote his slain daughter a letter on the flight back from South Africa. In it, he promised to carry on her work. From that, the Amy Biehl Foundation was born.
“Peter and I talked about it when he was still able to talk,” Linda Biehl said. “He said, ‘You go for it. Keep this thing we started going.’ I told him, ‘I will. And you’ll be there with me.’”
Memorial donations may be made to the Amy Biehl Foundation, c/o Steve Schwarz, 29 Independence Drive, Hillsborough, NJ 08844.
Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.