Here’s How Gerry Lenfest Made Philadelphia Better
In the words of Ed Rendell, Meryl Levitz, and 15 other prominent Philadelphians.
H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest first made a name for himself in Philadelphia as a cable TV pioneer, but when he died on Sunday, he went down in history as one of the most generous people ever to grace our city.
We asked notable Philadelphians how he changed the city and what he meant to Philadelphia. Here are their answers.
Gerry Lenfest: The Man
Former governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia
The Philadelphia region has been fortunate to have had several great philanthropists contribute to our progress — Walter Annenberg, Sidney Kimmel, Pete Musser, and many others. But Gerry Lenfest was the most impactful of all of them because his giving touched so many different areas, so many different walks of life, and so many diverse facets of what our community does. In the life of a city, no one is ever totally irreplaceable, but Gerry comes close.
David L. Cohen
Senior Executive Vice President and the Chief Diversity Officer, Comcast
Gerry Lenfest was a transformative philanthropist.
Through his strategic philanthropy, Gerry transformed our city and region. The breadth of his interests has touched virtually every important element of our community. Public education and higher education. Arts and culture. Journalism. Large, well-established institutions and smaller nonprofits. His financial support and personal engagement has positively impacted so many individual organizations — and our city and region as a whole.
Through the $1.3 billion in gifts that Gerry and [wife] Marguerite have made, he has not only changed our community, but he has structured his giving and applied his generosity in a way to lead — to encourage others to join him and thereby to leverage his own personal generosity and leadership. As Ed Rendell has said, Gerry Lenfest was truly Philadelphia’s leading citizen.
Philadelphia has lost its version of LeBron James. He was a giant. He raised the bar in Philadelphia with his incredible generosity. He was our franchise player.
Mayor of Philadelphia
Today we mourn the loss of a Philadelphia giant who left an indelible mark on the city and the entire Philadelphia region. Gerry Lenfest’s business acumen was exceeded only by his philanthropic impact. His generous contributions transformed the lives of countless individuals and institutions.
His imprint will long remain on jewels like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Curtis Institute of Music, as well as newer institutions, such as the Museum of the American Revolution, the Lenfest Ocean Program, and too many youth-serving organizations to name.
Gerry’s decision to return Philadelphia’s daily newspapers to local ownership brought stability to those publications at a time when journalism has never mattered more. Truly, Philadelphia was blessed to have Gerry Lenfest, and my thoughts are with his loved ones during this difficult time.
President and CEO, Visit Philadelphia
He was a true world citizen. In fact, he embodied citizenship, looking out for the city and beyond, and using his resources and his imagination and determination to make the world a better place.
Chairman and CEO, Dilworth Paxson LLP
Gerry Lenfest wasn’t just a pillar of the community in Philadelphia; he was practically an entire colonnade. It’s truly impossible to overstate the profound range of his contributions to our region’s cultural and civic life. From education to the arts to the news media, the astounding selflessness of Gerry’s investments and interventions provided essential sustenance not just to keep this city viable, but to give it a chance to compete and thrive in perpetuity.
In an era when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing ever wider, Gerry’s philanthropy built and maintained bridges across which even the least among us might access the best of what Philadelphia has to offer. The void left by his passing is palpable, but I don’t believe Gerry would want us to sit idly by in hopes that another billionaire will step in to fill the vacuum. I’d rather think he would want us to be inspired by the expansiveness of his spirit and the depth of his love for our city to keep building bridges together.
Architecture critic, Philadelphia Inquirer
I think his real contribution to the city was in supporting civic institutions at a time when we don’t have a lot of deep-pocketed donors stepping forward. Philly Mag recently did a good piece on how stingy rich people are here with donations. He was the polar opposite.
Executive producer, History Making Productions
Gerry came to the Philadelphia philanthropic and civic world only after he had sold Suburban Cable announcing his intent to control the distribution of his wealth. He was not a captive to the civic infrastructure that has a patient, incremental slow-as-you-go approach to everything. He joined when he saw that being part of the governance of an organization was critical, led from the front and put his money and considerable intellect where his mouth was. When he thought it important enough, he was willing to go it alone and push others to see his vision. He was just as willing to get behind a world class institution like Curtis as he was to promote programs and people seeking to close the educational achievement gap — no easy feat. He was undaunted and indefatigable, which is why there is a Museum of the American Revolution today. His love for art, music, and learning was infectious. He was never afraid to lead and equally comfortable following — a rare combination. He seemed to totally enjoy the fruits of his philanthropy and was a presence at virtually everything, together with Marguerite.
At a moment when Pew and Annenberg left town and the William Penn Foundation shifted gears, Gerry’s grant-making filled a giant hole and kept a lot of cultural and civic interests alive, if sometimes only barely. How this loss in leadership, civic character, and philanthropic girth might be replaced is a major issue confronting the city and the region. The wealth is out there. The question is how to harness it to fill this void and sustain the momentum that Gerry Lenfest’s gift giving helped create. It is a question that Philadelphia’s civic and cultural leadership had best take very, very seriously.
What Gerry Lenfest may deserve the most credit for and hopefully one of his lasting legacies was his unflinching commitment to a free and robust local journalism, without which Philadelphia would likely drift back to some of its worst political characteristics. That he had the forethought to plan a succession to his leadership at Philadelphia Media Network in the form of a not-for-profit ownership provides more evidence that he thought of his civic and philanthropic investments in the long term.
It will be very easy to write the job description of the numerous and critical roles that Gerry Lenfest played in Philadelphia. Filling the job is likely to be as much bigger challenge.
CEO, Brandywine Realty Trust
Gerry Lenfest was one of the savviest businessmen in Philadelphia’s history, but he will long be remembered for his selflessness and unparalleled philanthropy.
He had that very rare gift of being able to keep his head in the clouds while keeping his feet on the ground. Through his generosity, he was instrumental in shaping Philadelphia as we know it today. He was an extremely gracious and humble person who firmly believed in creating a better future for all Philadelphians.
Gerry was an inspiration, and an idyllic role model, and I am proud to have had the opportunity to learn through his example. He set a high bar for other business leaders. After amazing business success, he continued to drive every organization he touched forward. I have no doubt his life story will inspire the leaders of tomorrow to advance the city through prioritizing our neighborhoods, and the culture, programs, and institutions that make Philadelphia great.
Gerry Lenfest: Supporter of Arts and Culture
CEO, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Gerry’s philanthropy transformed many institutions in Philadelphia and across the country, and he was especially generous to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where he served as Chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees from 2001 to 2010, and thereafter as a Trustee Emeritus.
Few individuals have given so graciously their time and so freely their resources, and fewer still have had such an enormous impact on the museum’s history. His leadership contributed greatly to strengthen the endowment and to renew and expand our facilities, including the landmark Main Building, and he supported the development of a comprehensive facilities master plan that has guided this work over the course of nearly two decades.
Gerry and his wife Marguerite lent crucial support to the initiative to keep Thomas Eakins’s Portrait of Dr. Samuel D Gross (The Gross Clinic, 1875) in Philadelphia and described saving the work as a matter of civic pride.
Gerry had a deep passion for American art, and also for the work of African American artists, and the Lenfests made many generous gifts from their own collection to the museum. They established a grant to create the Lenfest Challenge, which helped to endow many important curatorial, conservation, education, and other positions that are vital to the museum’s mission. Gerry also led the board in adopting strategic plans and was instrumental in launching new digital technology initiatives and collaborative marketing efforts as a means to attract new and more diverse audience. He will be greatly missed.
President and CEO, Kimmel Center
H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest literally transformed the city of Philadelphia and leaves behind an immeasurable and indelible legacy.
His philanthropy is felt by all on the Kimmel Center Cultural Campus, including many of our esteemed resident companies; his overall support of arts and cultural organizations across the region was immense; and his drive and generosity of spirit enabled and encouraged countless communities to “love the arts in Philadelphia.”
We join others in mourning Gerry’s loss and offer our sincerest condolences to the Lenfest family at this sorrowful time, in particular his son and our treasured friend, Kimmel Center Board Member, Brook Lenfest.
Gerry Lenfest: Supporter of People
Executive director, GreenLight Fund Philadelphia
As an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Gerry’s efforts changed Philadelphia and the lives of those who reside here. Generations of Philadelphians will live better lives because of his and Marguerite’s efforts. As a recipient of their giving, GreenLight Fund Philadelphia is deeply aware of the impacts of their generosity on children, youth, and families in low-income neighborhoods across the city. We are thankful for that generosity, and the important work it launched to reduce poverty in our city.
As another Philadelphia philanthropist Stephen Girard once said, “My deeds must be my life. When I die, my actions must speak for me.” Gerry’s actions will undoubtedly speak eloquently and passionately far into the future, and for that, we should be thankful for his leadership and contributions to the world. Gerry’s life is worthy of both celebration and aspiration — may we all use our gifts as he did — to make this city a better place to live, learn, and work for everyone.
Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia
Gerry Lenfest was a tireless champion for providing educational opportunities for all children in Philadelphia. Countless numbers of students and teachers benefitted from his generosity. From supporting our early literacy work, after-school programs, and Career and Technical Education offerings, to providing professional development opportunities to our teachers, Gerry was truly devoted to making life better for so many of us. Here at the School District of Philadelphia, we are all saddened by this great loss but are immensely grateful for the contributions Gerry made to our school communities.
President, Drexel University
Gerry Lenfest was extremely pragmatic and tactical on one hand, and on the other, willing to dream big.
A great example was the Lenfest Foundation’s decision to commit to a major matching grant to support Drexel’s plan to build a K-8 campus to house the Powel School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School.
Another example was his decision to support the Drexel University Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships to enable cooperative learning for students in the nonprofit cultural sector. The latter was a game-changer for both our students and this community. And Gerry was so very gratified by the wonderful results that he had seen to date through the center, whose student co-ops are helping such groups as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Library Company of Philadelphia.
Gerry invested in people and good ideas, and we were honored to be able to partner with Gerry and Marguerite, and the Lenfest Foundation.
Gerry Lenfest: Supporter of Journalism
Contributing editor, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook
Gerry Lenfest cared about saving local journalism and used his great wealth, generosity, and creativity not just to preserve what we have but to spur innovation, seed new models, and take all of us to the next level. He also had a profound effect on the educational landscape by looking for new approaches, like Mastery Charter, and not just supporting them financially, but staying involved over the years.
Chair of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Dean of Temple’s School of Media and Communication
In his final chapter, Gerry focused on saving local journalism through the creation of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. He recognized that quality, public-service reporting is essential to the health of a community, and every bit as worthy of philanthropic support as the museums, librarie,s and universities he and Marguerite supported for decades. He put his money — and his heart — where his mouth was, charging us on the Institute board with finding a viable model for local journalism in the digital age and giving us tens of millions of dollars to help make it happen. Journalists here in Philly and across the nation are profoundly indebted to him, and committed to bringing his vision to reality.
Executive director and CEO, The Lenfest Institute
Gerry mattered — and still matters — to Philadelphia because he always put the city first. He dedicated his great fortune, his keen mind, and all of his affection and energy to the city he loved — its arts, its schools, its history, its local journalism, and its democracy. As Gerry said to me the last time I saw him, “Where better than Philadelphia to invent the future of a free press?”
A tradition of great public service journalism is Gerry Lenfest’s permanent gift to the City of Philadelphia. Gerry saved the Philadelphia Inquirer from long-term decline and eventual demise.
Four years ago, after multiple changes of ownership, the Philadelphia Inquirer was purchased by Gerry Lenfest and rededicated to the service of its community. This was not in itself unique. Newspapers in Washington, Boston, Minneapolis, and most recently Los Angeles have each been purchased by wealthy new owners committed to fresh investment. But Gerry went a step or two further. He reorganized the news enterprise itself as a public benefit corporation charged not with maximizing near-term profits but with sustaining a profitable journalistic enterprise in the public interest. He then donated substantially all of the equity to an endowed non-profit organization now called The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, dedicated to investing in the future of local news in Philadelphia and nationwide.
The fruits of these investments are evident nearly every day. In just the last few months, the Inquirer has published unparalleled investigative news coverage of the local opioid crisis, lead poisoning, a devastating nursing home fire, and state and city government. These stories, expressed powerfully in both print and digital form, have had tremendous impact on our community and its democracy.