While the passing of philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest leaves an unfillable void in the civic life of Philadelphia, it may be a truer measure of his life that its end also breaks many hearts.
Those who knew him – and there are many – will remember a charming, kind, generous man, with an eternal spark in his eyes, whose unassuming nature belied the astonishing wealth he accumulated … and gave away.
To most of us, philanthropy lives in rarefied air, as far away as the moon. The wealth that philanthropy requires is usually fortressed behind foundations and institutions, and the bestowal of generosity rarely comes with a human face. Gerry's was the very human face — and heart — of philanthropy. His giving was personal. He gave to what he loved: the city, young people, the arts, culture and civic endeavors. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Curtis Institute, Museum of the American Revolution, the Barnes, after-school programs, the School District. And he and his wife, Marguerite, kept giving, all told, $1.3 billion. His generosity made an indelible imprint on the recipients of his largesse, but also on the civic expectations for others to contribute and better our city and region.
Lenfest was also a testament not just to second acts in life, but to third, fourth and more. After a stint in the Navy, he got a law degree, and then went on to build a cable empire. The sale of that empire in 2000 netted him $1.2 billion. Instead of setting up a foundation to have that money survive him in perpetuity, he entered a new act of his life by methodically spending that money on the institutions and causes he cared about.
It was one of his final acts a few years ago that holds the most significance for us — and for the democratic principles of a free press. As the news business was disrupted, and the companies such as ours struggled to find strategies to survive, Philadelphia Media Network experienced a turbulent period of multiple owners and directions. Despite his insistence that he wouldn't get involved in this business, that changed in 2012 when he became one of a partnership that bought the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. He became passionate about the importance of vibrant journalism, not just for this city, but for society, and in 2016, established the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which became the nonprofit owner of the company. This not only would establish longevity that would outlive him, but also established a new model for how journalism might be supported.
In April of last year, the Museum of the American Revolution opened, another passion project that would not exist without Lenfest. His leadership there is fitting for a revolutionary man who changed the face of the city's civic life and its philanthropic potential. He gave with his heart.