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‘Optimism, intuition, experience’: Philly remembers Gerry Lenfest

Leaders of art, media, and politics celebrated the life of H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest Wednesday at the Academy of Music. The eminent Philadelphia philanthropist died in August at age 88.

Jim Friedlich, the executive director and CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, remembered a pivotal moment of Lenfest’s generosity to the organization that runs Philly.com and publishes the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

“He told me, ‘I’m going to give you another $40 million in matching funds and work with you to try and get the (Lenfest Institute for Journalism) to $100 million in endowment funding for long-term journalism,’ ” recalled Friedlich.

But then Lenfest, who was born into the Great Depression and worked on his family’s farm in South Jersey, told Friedlich to skip first class.

“He said, ‘I noticed you’ve been riding the Acela. You know, the regional train is $80 cheaper, it takes 15 minutes longer, and the seats are exactly the same,’ ” Friedlich said to laughter from the crowd.

Known as the billionaire who flew coach, the sailor who bought the shipyard, Lenfest began his foundation after the sale of his Suburban Cable company to AT&T, and then Comcast in 2000.

The foundation continues to touch many facets of life in the Delaware Valley.

“My daughter was born in the Lenfest Pavillion,” one guest remarked as admirers settled down for the program, which included a performance by Curtis Institute students.

“His favorite restaurant was Little Pete’s,” said Gail Harrity, COO and president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, referring to the now-closed 24-hour Philadelphia diner. Harrity also remembered how he would use palm reading and horoscopes as a way to break the ice around the boardroom table.

Presence, or “duende,” is how Roberto Diaz, president and CEO of Curtis, described Lenfest’s ability to work a room while appraising a project’s potential.

Several people remembered his warmth.

“We lived side by side in the same apartment building for 15 years,” said Bernie Kelley, former president of Merck’s manufacturing division. “Gerry and Marguerite have been just great neighbors.”

Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, remembered when Lenfest’s wealth grew to make him the single largest shareholder of Comcast stock. Roberts, who was in his mid-20s at the time, recalled Lenfest’s handling of  negotiations for a deal involving Roberts and his father, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts.

That night, “Gerry turned to me and said, ‘It’s way too late for your dad and me, we’re going home. You stay with the lawyers until the deal is done.’

“He then handed me his signature page, dramatically signed it, and said, ‘You have my proxy,’ ” said Roberts. “Now it’s one thing for your dad to do that, but for Gerry to do that, with hundreds of millions of his own dollars, stunned me.”

Lenfest first found success attending Mercersburg Academy, a small private boarding school near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Wayne Humphrey is the chairman of the board of Pine Forge Academy, another small school. In  2006, the Lenfests committed to improving several buildings on the historic campus, said Humphrey, echoing the sentiments of many in the room.

“When the Lenfest family came into the life of Pine Forge Academy, it just advanced exponentially,” he said.

Lenfest’s commitment to journalism may have been his greatest achievement, many suggested. And his work to transition the Philadelphia Media Network to a nonprofit endowment was the cornerstone of his memorial.

“At a time when journalism has never mattered more, or has been so fragile, Gerry stepped up to the plate to protect this most basic human right. Thanks to Gerry and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, our liberty is not and will not be lost,” said Roberts.

The Lenfest Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism have supported WHYY’s Youth Media Labs and local journalism initiatives.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jim Friedlich in the second paragraph.

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