Remembering Peter Li: The Gentle Giant Who Quietly Shaped Our Industry

Peter Li, Founder and CEO of Peter Li Education and a member of the AAP PreK-12 Learning Group Hall of Fame, passed away on March 5. Kathy Hurley, co-founder of Girls Thinking Global, was a longtime colleague and friend. Below she shares her thoughts on Peter’s legacy.

Last week I was fortunate to be able to attend the memorial service for Peter Li and share in the celebration of life with his family and close friends. I was able to spend most of this Easter weekend reflecting on Peter’s life and the impact he had on me, personally, and as an education industry mentor and colleague.

I actually learned of Peter’s passing while I was on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Holy Land; a place that Peter had shared with me that he wanted to visit one day. Sadly, he was never able to make the trip, but I thought of him throughout my trip and was even able to light candle in his memory at one of the ancient churches I visited.  

Peter Li was truly a gentle and quiet giant.  Even as he was a man larger than life, he was a man of few words. Yet, in his quietness, he touched every facet of the education industry: education media, school supply, education technology, catholic and parochial schools, colleges and universities and even early childhood education.  

Peter’s 40+ year career in the education industry has left an indelible mark on companies and individuals alike. Every Christmas, he gave the entire education industry a gift – the Peter Li Christmas Party in New York. It was THE PARTY of the year and not to be missed! Year after year, more than 400 people attended the party and year after year, Peter stood at the door greeting every attendee in his quiet and soft-spoken way.  I always marveled at how a man of so few words was also known as the King of Networking!

Throughout his career, he played a major role in growing industries through his support of organizations and like NCEA, AEP, SIIA and NSSEA. Quiet as he was, his involvement did not go unnoticed, as he was one of the early inductees of the AEP’s prestigious Hall of Fame. His induction paved the way for many others, including myself.  At each induction, he generously threw a large celebration to welcome other members and show his appreciation for their contributions to the industry.  

Peter was not only an industry leader through Peter Li Education, Inc., but he was also a great mentor to many individuals, serving as a steadfast reference for many colleagues in their job searches. There are many within the education world who are grateful to Peter for his friendship, mentorship and support. They are now part of his legacy, and I know many who learned from his generosity and are continuing to “pay it forward” to the younger generation entering our industry.  

On a personal note, Peter was not just an industry colleague, but he was also a life-long friend. We attended each other’s weddings. He attended the funerals of both of my parents. He was such a constant friend, that my nieces and nephews referred to him as Uncle Peter. He and my husband, Charles, shared a deep and abiding love of fishing and all things to do with the water! Peter shared his love of things and people. He is known to have dined at a favorite restaurant 5 nights out of the week and often treated his friends and families to extravagant nights out! He made sure to share his love of favorite restaurants – from exquisite Chinese fare to the finest Russian cuisine – always his treat!

One of his last acts of kindness was to donate to the new non-profit, Girls Thinking Global, that I founded with Deb deVries. He and his wonderful wife, Joy, believed strongly in our mission. Having raised girls of their own, they valued the power of education for girls and the impact it has locally, nationally and globally. 

To come full circle back to education, if you know Peter’s “backstory”, it is only fitting that a young boy whose family left war-torn China, would so endemically shape the U.S. education market. His grandparents and parents were born and raised in China.  They highly valued education and were well-educated themselves.  Like many immigrants before them, and after, they came by boat to the U.S. not only for a better life, but also for one where Peter and his twin brother, Paul, and their siblings could attend school and receive a top-quality education. Peter’s love and commitment to education was passed down to his beautiful daughters, Lisa and Susan, who both graduated with top honors from Notre Dame University.

Peter had a great love and commitment to his family. His daughters are shining examples of the values that he imparted to them. In his memory, they have established the Li Memorial Education Fund.  The fund is dedicated to providing education opportunities for immigrant students in the U.S.  Donations can be sent to Susan Li, Ph.D., Pacific University, 190 SE 8th Ave. Ste # 260, Hillsboro, OR 97123. 

My sincere condolences go out to Peter’s loving wife, Joy, his daughters and their families. What a great legacy he has left them – successful and generous business man and industry icon, kind and loving husband and father and grandfather, and architect of the best parties ever thrown! He will be deeply missed by all who knew him. Our industry has lost a gentle giant, but we can keep his memory alive by emulating his giving spirit and commitment to the education industry that he loved so dearly. 

In closing, I want to share an old Chinese proverb that I think beautifully sums up the whole of Peter’s life:

If you plan for one year, plant rice.
If you plan for ten years, plant trees.  
If you plan for one hundred years, educate mankind.  

Peter was a planter for one hundred years!

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