RIP Gerry Lenfest

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.

High temperature silver linings

I was walking through Old City, Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon when I looked down at my Apple Watch and saw that it was 98 degrees. It felt hot, but not that hot. Yesterday’s high in Philadelphia was 99 degrees, and today’s is expected to be 95 degrees—getting better as the week continues.

If you don’t enjoy this sort of heat (I do) it can be brutal. But I think it can be useful, at least in terms of reminding people to literally sit down and relax. We don’t do enough of that in a culture that’s more frenetic than it needs to be.

Growing up without climate control, I remember spending long mornings and afternoons in the heat, in a sort of suspended animation on the porch or under the shade of the giant birch or oak trees, or finding a hose someplace or making lemonade. And more than that, I remember specific experiences of those sweltering summer days more readily than I can recall other kid moments from other seasons.

Heading to Washington tomorrow for Independence Day, and spending the rest of the week there before flying to Seattle on Saturday evening.

Cathedral Basilica mass

After landing in Philadelphia yesterday, I stopped in the office to check the mail and take care of some things. Then I headed downstairs to enjoy Sister Cities Park in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul. I realized it was coming up on 5pm, and that the 5:15pm Vigil Mass would be starting shortly, so I went in for mass.

The chilly interior of the basilica was a welcome change from the warm summer air lingering just outside.

Spent today recovering from this past week’s wonderful, intense Vita Institute.

Fountain of the Three Rivers

Visited Sister Cities Park yesterday for the first time in a while for lunch with Bobby Schindler, who’s in town this week. It was a perfect summer day to sit outside and enjoy the unfolding scenes. I brought my MacBook and worked outside the office for a bit. After work, I walked back to Logan Circle and captured these scenes.

Logan Circle’s 1924 Fountain of the Three Rivers frames the foreground in the footage below, with City Hall in the distance, with a bit of its history below.

Adapting the tradition of “river god” sculpture, [Alexander] Calder created large Native American figures to symbolize the area’s major streams, the Delaware, the Schuylkill, and the Wissahickon. The young girl leaning on her side against an agitated, water-spouting swan represents the Wissahickon Creek; the mature woman holding the neck of a swan stands for the Schuylkill River; and the male figure, reaching above his head to grasp his bow as a large pike sprays water over him, symbolizes the Delaware River. Sculpted frogs and turtles spout water toward the 50-foot (15 m) geyser in the center…

Ringing the bells

Terence Sweeney shares his story of ringing out the church bells of his West Philadelphia church after many silent years:

Our lovely set of named bells ranges from big deep Adolphus (key of E) all the way down to tiny bright Gervaise (F-sharp). Adolphus is larger than a rather more famous bell here in Philadelphia, but he sings of a more perfect liberty. Each note on the scale is represented, but currently two bells—Elizabeth (G-sharp) and Edmund (C-sharp)—are out of commission, making renditions of “Immaculate Mary” or “Fly, Eagles, Fly” a little more difficult. …

Why ring at all? It has been a long time since people set their watches to the noon-day pealing, and we hear of good news and bad by means of phone alerts rather than church chimes. Perhaps we do it in order to make our own contribution to the sound of the city. Daily we hear honking, laughter, sirens, birds, trolleys clanging, and the occasional drum circle. And now we hear the sound of bells, a small reminder that our urban landscape can be a spiritual landscape.

No doubt few people know the Angelus prayer and still fewer pause to pray it at our bidding. But bells remind us of churches, of joy, of loss, and perhaps of more ultimate things. …

One pauses and one hears. Pausing and hearing can be the first step in faith. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist says.

So we ring out in the hope that someone might hear the call and enter. We ring out to add a touch of Christianity to these secular spaces. We ring out the death toll—rich and deep with Adolphus—hoping a college student will hear and suddenly catch on to what John Donne means when he says the bell tolls for us. We let parish children ring the bells so they can feel the reverberating joy of symbols old and new. And sometimes we ring for sheer joy. When the Philadelphia Eagles triumphed in the Super Bowl, amid the cacophony of car horns, shouting fans, fireworks, and the Eagles fight song, joyous sounds came from our bell tower. And a few weeks later, as we finally sang the Gloria on the Easter Vigil, we let them brightly sing out again for the triumph of Christ. God promises a new heaven and a new earth, so we celebrate the lasting joy of the Resurrection, but also the passing excitement of a Super Bowl.

Perhaps the new evangelization begins with such small gestures as the ringing of bells.

To “catch on to what John Donne means when he says the bell tolls for us.”

Broad Street Run

I first ran the Broad Street Run five years ago, and this morning ran it for a second time. I vaguely remember thinking I probably would only run it once, and now that I’ve run it twice I feel the same indifference about running it again. What makes it distinctive and worthwhile is that an incredible 40,000 people run this race. I know Bay to Breakers in San Fransisco has something like 100,000 people run, but that’s a shorter and quirkier run.

Walked from 21st and Walnut this morning shortly after 7am and caught the subway at Walnut/Locust for North Philadelphia and the starting line. The subway was incredibly packed—far more packed than even the most full New York subway I’ve been on. I think a lot of people coming from outside the city park in South Philadelphia and ride the subway to the starting line. Run started at 8am, and my Green corral got started close to 8:20. Conditions were great: cool without being cold, slightly overcast but neither raining nor windy. I didn’t bring anything with me and left my phone at the apartment, so tracked the run with my Apple Watch and was able to use it to text and call friends afterward who were heading down to the finishing area.

Finished slightly slower than I did five years ago. In 2013 I placed in the top 30 percent of finishers with a time of 1:22:21 and pace of 8:14. Today my finishing time was 1:25:57 for an 8:35 pace. After being on the road/in the air since April 25th, and on top of that having not run more than once or twice since November, I’m happy with the result.

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Old City night scene

View from my seat outside Race Street Cafe tonight at 2nd and Race Streets, catching up with Gavin Keirans. I somehow don’t think I had been there before. Across the street is a new luxury style tower that looks out over the Ben Franklin Bridge whose illuminated pillar you can see.

It was a beautiful night, the first that’s really felt like spring. I had come from McCrossen’s Tavern in Fairmount, where I caught up with Alex Smith after work. It was really great to be able to comfortably walk from work to McCrossen’s and then across the city to Race Street Cafe.

Drexel Square, in progress

A view of 30th Street Station on the left, as I was standing on the platform of SEPTA Regional Rail waiting for a train a few nights ago. In the foreground, beyond the intersection, has been a parking lot for as long as I’ve known it. It’s in the process of redevelopment into Drexel Square, the very first part of the generational Schuylkill Yards project. Here’s a rendering of what that parking lot might look like in the future, with Maria Gialanella providing context:

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William Penn’s original plan for Philadelphia included five city squares. More than 300 years later, Drexel University, working with a Radnor, Pa.-based real estate firm, is prepared to add a sixth major square just blocks east of Penn’s campus.

Brandywine Realty Trust and Drexel University began construction Wednesday on the park, the first leg of a $3.5 billion public construction project in the area between Drexel’s campus and 30th Street Station. Known as “Schuylkill Yards,” the complex of several buildings will adjoin the Schuylkill River with the stated goal of building a research and development hub in University City.

The first phase of the new Schuylkill Yards should be complete in the fall of 2018, while the whole project will span 15 to 20 years.

“We are proud that our first project in Schuylkill Yards will deliver a green public gathering space where the community can connect, interact, and share experiences,” Brandywine President and CEO Jerry Sweeney said in a statement.

“Plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

No satisfaction unless we pause

A photo from the Porch at 30th Street Station, where I sat on Wednesday before catching my train to Washington. It’s a pleasant place to be now, with tables, swings, and grass where there was a parking lot a decade ago or less. And of course those glass towers are still new, too.

Here’s an excerpt from Fulton Sheen’s Finding True Happiness that was shared someplace recently:

The painter stands back from his canvas to see whether the details of the seascape are properly placed. True repose is such a standing back to survey the activities that fill our days.

We cannot get a real satisfaction out of our work unless we pause, frequently, to ask ourselves why we are doing it, and whether its purpose is one [of which] our minds wholeheartedly approve. Perhaps one of the reasons why so many of our economic and political projects miscarry is because they are in the hands of men with eyes so tightly glued to what they are doing that they never stop to question whether it should be done at all. Merely keeping busy, merely getting paid, can never satisfy man’s need for creative work. …

If we direct our work towards God, we shall work better than we know. The admission of this fact is another of the tasks for which we need repose. Once a week, man, reposing from work, does well to come before his God to admit how much of what he did during the week was the work of his Creator; he can remind himself, then, that the material on which he labored came from other Hands, that the ideas he employed entered his mind from a higher Source, that the very energy which he employed was a gift…