Frederick L. Voigt stood at the front door of his big stone home in Chestnut Hill each December for decades, greeting mayors and governors, lawmakers and friends, a crowd that grew into the hundreds for each of his epic Christmas parties. They were an institution, like the host.
Mr. Voigt, 76, died Thursday, July 30, of pancreatic cancer. He took with him an encyclopedic knowledge of elections, politics, public policy, and how they interconnect.
He was an avid adviser and curmudgeonly critic. Politicians and journalists were often on the receiving end of Mr. Voigt’s deeply footnoted opinions about their work.
His daughter, Carey Dearnley, said the Christmas party started when her father and mother, Patricia, lived in an apartment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and then grew with his career and their family.
“It was the craziest mix of people,” she recalled.
Mr. Voigt grew up in Longport, N.J., and had a lifelong affinity for the ocean. Dearnley said he was able to take an annual family trip to the beach in Rhode Island this month and returned home last week to enter hospice.
In typical fashion, Mr. Voigt reached out to his entire list of contacts, updating them on the news. “Am entering hospice today! Thanks for your friendship over the years!” Mr. Voigt said in texts.
“It was really fast,” Dearnley said of his death. “He’s nothing if not determined. So we kind of figured he was ready to go.”
Mr. Voigt attended Valley Forge Military Academy, the University of Denver, and Dickinson Law School, according to a Philadelphia City Council resolution last year marking his retirement after 50 years of public service. He met his wife in law school and they celebrated their 50th anniversary last year. In addition, he is survived by daughter Sarah Savage and three grandchildren.
Mr. Voigt became a lawyer in 1969, working first as a deputy city solicitor and then as an assistant district attorney under Arlen Specter, who would go on to the U.S. Senate.
He established himself as a serious player in Philadelphia by taking the lead in 1977 at the Committee of Seventy, a good government watchdog group founded in 1904.
William K. Marimow was then a new City Hall reporter for The Inquirer, a newspaper he would eventually lead. It was a time of great political tension in the city, with a recall effort under way to remove Mayor Frank L. Rizzo from office.
Marimow said Mr. Voigt operated like a “professional observer” of the process, keeping everyone honest.
“I found him to be a really lovable curmudgeon, in the best meaning of the word,” Marimow said. “He was occasionally irritable. But he was also an idealist. If he read a story and thought it was on target, he’d let you know. And if you missed a bit of nuance, you heard about it instantaneously.”
Mr. Voigt launched studies on several topics at Seventy, including the Home Rule Charter, housing, policing, and how judges are selected. One study was a forerunner to the movement to create Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which advocates for merit selection of judges instead of judicial elections.
Lynn Marks, who headed that group for 25 years, said the Christmas parties were the best political and social event of the year in the city.
“He had a huge appetite for politics and interest in everything political in the city,” she said. “He would read the papers and call all of his contacts, and be a sponge for all this political information.”
John Hawkins, a lobbyist who worked for Mr. Voigt at the Committee of Seventy, called him “the quintessential Philadelphia gentleman who never lost the twinkle in his eye even as he was sticking his finger in the eye of authority.”
“He loved Philadelphia and never stopped trying to do what was right by his city,” Hawkins said.
A snappy dresser, Mr. Voigt could often be found at City Hall wearing pinstripes in cool weather and seersucker in summer, with suspenders — and often accompanied by a bow tie.
He had a passion for cultivating orchids, ringing up top prizes at the annual Flower Show.
“He was very proud of having won some blue ribbons in the last few years,” said Bob Warner, a retired reporter for the Daily News and The Inquirer who advised Mr. Voigt on caring for flowers. “When he got into something, whether elections or orchids, he really got into it.”
Mr. Voigt was also a regular in Election Court, a high-tension arena where voting and campaign disputes are decided while the polls are open. Former Common Pleas Court Judge Pamela Dembe recalled how Mr. Voigt stayed calm and maintained a sense of humor.
“Elections can become very fraught. He was always a gentleman and a calming influence,” Dembe said. “He knew election law upside down and backwards. He was a straight shooter.”
Mr. Voigt retired from the Committee of Seventy in 2005 but did not stay away from elections for long. He was hired in 2008 by the Board of City Commissioners, which runs city elections, serving as a deputy commissioner and counsel.
Commissioner Al Schmidt said Mr. Voigt’s 50-year institutional memory is “irreplaceable.”
“The law would say one thing and Fred would say, ‘That’s bull—. that’s not how it’s done.’ He would explain the background on everything and how judges along the way changed things,” Schmidt recalled. “We leaned on Fred heavily to navigate some very trying times.”
Mr. Voigt mentored Schmidt’s chief deputy, Seth Bluestein, who received a text from him last week. It said, “The goal is to cast a valid ballot in November.”
Mr. Voigt will miss that election. But he is returning to the ocean. Dearnley said her family will have a public celebration of his life at some point. But for now, Mr. Voigt will be cremated and his family will say a private goodbye.
“What he really wanted [was to be] cremated and thrown off the jetty in Longport,” she said. “He wants to go back to the ocean. That was his place.”