Gerry Lenfest, 88, died this morning. I’ve written about Lenfest a few times before; his and his wife Marguerite’s public spirited generosity in creating a better Philadelphia will be remembered as one of the high points in the city’s history. Peter Dobrin reports:
H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, 88, who substantially remade the educational, cultural, and media sectors of the city and well beyond to become one of Philadelphia’s most dynamic civic leaders of the last century, died Sunday morning…
Mr. Lenfest, who had been in declining health in recent months, parlayed the sale of the family cable business into a second act as the area’s leading philanthropist for nearly two decades, giving away more than $1.3 billion. …
“Gerry has had a huge impact on the renaissance and renewal of Philadelphia and all of its institutions,” said Philadelphia Museum of Art president and chief operating officer Gail Harrity. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he has shaped Philadelphia for the future.”
Said David McCullough, the author and historian: “I think he was one of the most memorable and lovable men I’ve ever known. A devoted Philadelphian if ever there was one. His love of that city and its history, and his willingness to be not only generous with his philanthropy but to work hard to attain a worthy objective, is something we could all take a lesson from on how to go about life. He was a terrific man.”
“We’ve lost our greatest citizen, there’s no doubt about that,” said Ed Rendell, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor. “He impacted the lives of Philadelphians at every level, in the city, in the neighborhoods.” …
Mr. Lenfest was born neither to wealth nor the social status enjoyed by some of his fellow philanthropists. A lawyer by training, Mr. Lenfest and wife Marguerite built up their cable business over several decades, selling Lenfest Communications Inc. in 2000 and undertaking a philanthropic spree that put the Lenfest name alongside those of Girard, Widener, Curtis, Annenberg, Pew, and Haas – the city’s historically most generous families.
He was “one of the greatest philanthropists the city has ever seen,” said Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts, who had several close dealings with the businessman before Comcast ended up taking over Lenfest Communications. “He has changed our city and so many institutions.” …
After making plans to donate all his wealth, Mr. Lenfest became an éminence grise to the city’s arts groups. He was chairman of the board of old-line institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Curtis Institute of Music, successfully convincing other supporters that even great traditions needed to be expanded upon and brought up to date.
And he willed new ones into existence. He established the Lenfest Ocean Program, and believed in the new Museum of the American Revolution to the tune of more than $63 million in cash donations, becoming its largest donor. He lived to see it become a reality, greeting guests from a wheelchair when the museum opened its doors in April 2017. …
“In Spanish we call it duende, a presence around someone,” said Roberto Díaz, who started as president and CEO of Curtis as Mr. Lenfest became board chairman. “There’s a very quiet strength there.” …
“I don’t think any of it would have happened without Marguerite’s blessing. She is a force,” said Curtis’ Díaz. “Some of the most consequential conversations we had about the needs of the students actually were with Marguerite as much as with Gerry, and sometimes with her first.”
The way they structured their generosity heightened its impact. Other philanthropists placed their billions in foundations to exist in perpetuity, giving out grants each year paid essentially out of investment income. The Lenfests, however, chose to spend down the entire endowment, and the effect on the nourishment and growth of hundreds of recipient institutions over a dozen and a half years was exhilarating.
The Lenfests gave away more than $1.3 billion to 1,100 organizations – providing scholarships to high school students in rural Pennsylvania, contributing to pay off the Kimmel Center’s construction debt and keep Curtis tuition-free, supporting career assistance for youth, underwriting new buildings at Columbia University and Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health, giving free billboard and TV advertising to arts groups, helping to save the Temple University rowing program, and on and on. …
At Columbia, Mr. Lenfest’s giving started at the law school, of which he was a graduate. “But there again,” said Bollinger, “he was willing to follow the lead of the institution as to what was important. When we wanted to build the center for the arts in West Harlem, he was right there with that gift. When we wanted to build out the Earth Institute and worked with improving conditions for impoverished people, he was right there.” …
Lenfest made an incredible philanthropic impact in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere in the space of about two decades. He modeled for wealthy persons in Philadelphia and nationally how to deal with wealth effectively, which is essentially that one grows and benefits in the proportion that they give themselves away; they grow in proportion to their willingness to diminish, in effect. This is one of the great paradoxes of human life, I think.
Relationships mattered enormously. In 1999, Mr. Lenfest took notice of a man emptying the trash bins in his office, became curious about his story, and struck gold with an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship.
“I was in medical school and business school, but I had a commercial cleaning business, and I was dumping Gerry’s wastebasket,” said Keith Leaphart, “and only Gerry would tell the janitor to sit down in his office to talk, and that’s literally how we became connected. He said, ‘Something is different about you. I need to know your story.’ I think he recognized my grit, my determination, I was an entrepreneur, some of the things he saw in himself at a younger age. Gerry wasn’t a silver-spoon kid, he worked really hard to get where he went as a billionaire philanthropist. I think it was mutual fondness.”
A few years later, in 2007, when Leaphart was considering a run for Congress, he approached Mr. Lenfest for support. Mr. Lenfest agreed (Leaphart eventually decided not to run), but before he left, Mr. Lenfest asked Leaphart for something in return.
“He said, ‘Sit back down, Keith, I have some things I need you to help me with,’ and it was really about making an impact here in the city, some ideas about putting kids to work, employment, and what we said was we would work together.”
Leaphart became involved with issues like ex-offender reintegration, and today chairs the Lenfest Foundation board.
What a great story, and what an incredible rise for Keith Leaphart.
And Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, reflects specifically on Lenfest’s impact on Philadelphia journalism:
I first met Gerry Lenfest in 2015, not long after he purchased sole ownership of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. Gerry told me at the time, “I just figured out how to become a millionaire in the newspaper business. It’s easy. You start out as a billionaire, and you buy a bunch of newspapers.”
I met Gerry, who died on Sunday, after a long career at the Wall Street Journal. After leaving the Journal, my team and I had a business that advised major American newspaper owners on the digital transformation of their businesses. The question we always heard from a Chicago Tribune, a Los Angeles Times, or a Baltimore Sun was fundamentally the same: “How do I save my newspaper?”
The question from Gerry Lenfest was much more expansive and profound: “How do we sustain great journalism writ large?” Gerry was especially focused on the business challenges. He asked me, “How can digital technology be used to enable and ennoble news, rather than to destroy it?” He sounded liked an 85-year-old millennial.
But Gerry’s most keen observation — and this was in 2015 — was that we were entering an era when questions of credibility would challenge the news industry. He warned that as the news business got tougher, some in power would take advantage of its weakness. As Gerry put it, “On the internet you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. Before long, we won’t know what to believe.” …
The Lenfest Institute for Journalism was founded on the belief that a strong local press is fundamental to the health of civic life in the Philadelphia region and to our democracy writ large. Gerry saw a critical role for the Institute in helping fund and protect journalism in Philadelphia. He also saw Philadelphia at the epicenter of a national effort to protect and transform local news in the digital age and to protect the democracy we serve.
So now in mid-2018, what is happening here in Philadelphia is one of the most closely watched experiments in American journalism.
Requiescat in pace.