Inquirer, Daily News Co-Owner Lewis Katz Dies in Massachusetts Plane Crash

Katz and Gerry Lenfest had just won control of the papers and from George Norcross on Tuesday.

Philanthropist H.G. "Gerry" Lenfest, left, and businessman Lewis Katz at the closed-door auction they later won on Tuesday, May 27th. AP Photo | Matt Rourke

Philanthropist H.G. “Gerry” Lenfest, left, and businessman Lewis Katz at the closed-door auction they later won on Tuesday, May 27th. AP Photo | Matt Rourke

The Inquirer reports that one of its owners died in a plane crash last night:

Lewis Katz, 72, co-owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Daily News and, died Saturday night in the crash of a private plane at a Massachusetts airfield.Katz’s death was confirmed by Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, who said he learned the news Sunday morning from close associates.

All seven people were killed aboard the private plane that crashed at Hanscom Field and erupted into a fireball, authorities said Sunday.

The Gulfstream IV crashed about 9:40 p.m. Saturday as it was departing for Atlantic City International Airport in New Jersey, said Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the air field.

At a 3 p.m. press conference, National Transportation Safety Board officials said they were still seeking the plane’s black box — most of the plane itself was consumed by the fire, they said. Witnesses reported that the plane, which was carrying four passengers (the rest were crew), never become airborne: There was, however, no reason to suggest that the event was anything but an accident.

It had only been days since Katz and Gerry Lenfest won control seemingly accidentally — of the papers in a court-ordered auction to resolve bickering with a faction led by another owner, George Norcross. (See Philly Mag’s archives on the recent ownership squabbles at the paper.) Katz and Lenfest had put up the winning bid of $88 million.

Katz’s survivors moved immediately to quell any questions about the new ownership group’s stability, appointing his son, Drew, to the newspapers’ governing board in his father’s place. (Nancy Phillips, Lewis Katz’s longtime companion, was not on the flight, multiple outlets reported.)

“We all deeply mourn the loss of my true friend and fellow investor in ownership of The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Daily News and,” Lenfest said. “It is a severe loss, but I am pleased to announce that Drew Katz, Lewis’s son, will replace his father on the board of our new company.”

Drew Katz’s involvement isn’t entirely unexpected. He had accompanied his father to Tuesday’s auction, sat with Lew Katz and Lenfest at the press conference afterward, creating speculation that he might have a role in the ownership group going forward.

But the timing of Katz’s death still raised questions about the ownership situation: While the Tuesday’s auction gave ownership of the papers to Katz and Lenfest, it was reported by the Philadelphia Business Journal this week that “Katz and Lenfest will officially assume ownership and Norcross and company will cash out on June 11.” If Katz’s estate is still in flux by then — as seems likely — would a judge let the sale close?

The Inquirer, in a separate story, says the sale will proceed:

Both H.F. Lenfest, Katz’s partner in the purchase, and Richard Sprague, who represented the pair in negotiations to buy the property, said Sunday that the $88 million deal would be completed as anticipated.

Although the deal is set to close June 12, Sprague said that the sellers – a partnership led by George Norcross – had offered to extend closing 30 days if necessary.

In the meantime, Katz left one mark behind during his brief ascension: The Inquirer today announced that Monday’s paper would feature two-pages of op-ed space; that space had been reduced to just one page per weekeday, with rumors pointing to Norcross being behind that move.

Drew Katz statement

Drew Katz issued the following statement at 10:45 am:

Other reactions

Others close to the situation were stunned.

“Unbelievable. What a tragic story. Horrible. Horrible,” said Bill Ross, director of the Newspaper Guild that represents the journalists of the papers and “I’m just stunned. I’m devastated. He was a real mensch, the salt of the earth. You never expect something this crazy to happen to someone you know. What a loss.”

He said it was too soon to know how Katz’s death might affect the seemingly just-resolved ownership situation at the papers.

“No idea. I’m just stunned,” Ross said. “Business decisions now are just crazy as far as I’m concerned.”

The former majority ownership faction — comprised of Norcross, William P. Hankowsky, and Joseph E. Buckelew — issued a statement at mid-morning: “We are shocked and deeply sorry to hear about the tragic death of Lewis Katz.  Our sincere condolences, thoughts and prayers go out to his family, loved ones and many friends and admirers. Lew’s long-standing commitment to the community and record of strong philanthropy across the region, particularly Camden where he was born and raised, will ensure that his legacy will live on.”

Lexie Norcross, who had helmed while her father led the company, also offered condolences:

“All of us at the NBA were extremely saddened to learn of the tragic, sudden death of former Nets owner Lewis Katz,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “Lewis was a trusted friend and valued member of the NBA family. He was a visionary businessman who touched the lives of so many with his tireless pursuit of innovation and enterprise, as well as his deep commitment to his family, friends and community.

Gov. Tom Corbett: “Sue and I are shocked and saddened by the tragic death of our friend, Lewis Katz. His personal warmth, wisdom, and strength of character make his passing a great loss, and his life and friendship a greater treasure. The legacy he leaves behind is one of a brilliant businessman with a profound commitment to make a difference, as evidenced by the many civic institutions he supported. But it was his beautiful soul and his quiet acts of philanthropy that we most admired. In his words, ‘It’s never a perfect day, unless you help someone who can never hope to repay you.’ We join Lewis’s beloved family and his many friends in mourning his loss.”

Other activities

Katz’s involvement in the newspapers was relatively recent. The Camden native attended Temple University, where he became friendly with fellow student Bill Cosby, and received a biology degree in 1963.

He went on to own the New Jersey Nets and and a share in the New Jersey Devils. According to Temple’s bio of him, Katz owned Kinney System Holding Corp., a major national parking company. In addition, he was the principal shareholder in First Peoples Bank of New Jersey and Cherry Hill National Bank.”

Most recently, Katz had donated $25 million to the university, with the result that the university’s school of medicine was named for him.

More as the story develops.