For years Lewis Katz was just a name to me. A sports team owner, a parking lot, billboard and real estate magnate, one of those guys who breathes the rarified air of wealth and power.
My personal contact with him came mostly after he joined the local heavyweights who bought the region’s biggest media company, then went to court over a raft of internal conflicts culminating in the firing of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow.
I spoke to Katz once during a break in the Marimow hearing, when he was in sitting in the witness stand and I was stretching my legs near the jury box, which the judge had been kind enough to open to reporters.
I told Katz I’d noticed the lunch he and his co-plaintiff (and co-millionaire) Gerry Lenfest had just finished – soft pretzels and mustard, eaten in the courtroom and washed down with bottled water. When I remarked on the incongruity of his means and his meal, we started talking about food, and he told me had no interest in fancy restaurants. A good sandwich is fine, better even.
Then I remembered the first time I met him. It was at a fancy breakfast at the Pennsylvania Society weekend in New York, when he was sitting at Ed Rendell’s table eating a bagel, dressed so casually among the expensive suits that I thought he was somebody’s driver.
He was a man, it seemed, who lived and spoke without pretense.
“He had a magnetic personality,” Marimow told me when I called him yesterday, “and whether he was talking with a receptionist, or a maintenance person, or a sandwich maker at a deli, or the chairman of the board of a Fortune-500 company, he treated everyone with the same dignity, respect, and warmth.”
A path untraveled
As you probably know, Katz is one of seven people killed late Saturday when a private jet crashed during takeoff on a Massachusetts runway.
As Marimow said, it’s one of those shocking moments that reminds you not to take life for granted, to get the most you can out of every day.
And it leaves some big questions hanging about the future of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, the media entities Katz and Lenfest won control of in a court-ordered auction just four days before his death.
Katz will leave his mark on many important institutions in this region through his business career and philanthropy. The Temple medical school, to cite one example, will bear his name.
But at 72, Katz was about to embark on a mission of enormous importance – reviving the finances and building the journalistic muscle of two venerable newspapers and their online cousin.
When Katz met with reporters after Tuesday’s auction, it was clear he didn’t have a grand plan for the company, just a determination to hire some top talent and make the enterprise better.
Katz’s son, Drew, who was at his side in the legal battles over the newspaper, will take Katz’s place on the board of the company. After he mourns the loss, it will be his turn to take on the challenge and serve the community that was looking to his father for great things. Godspeed.