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H.F. ‘Gerry’ Lenfest remembered at Academy of Music celebration

The civic leader and philanthropist, who died Aug. 5, was remembered at a celebration that drew dignitaries from the region and beyond.

The life and legacy of Gerry Lenfest was celebrated Wednesday in a public ceremony at the Academy of Music.
The life and legacy of Gerry Lenfest was celebrated Wednesday in a public ceremony at the Academy of Music.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

He was an American original who moved the city forward and helped to save the free press.

He felt a sense of responsibility to share his wealth with others and did so with a gleeful determination.

And he left the city and region changed.

H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest was remembered Wednesday in a ceremony at the Academy of Music that drew about 1,400 admirers and associates from across an impressive swath of the city's media, business, culture, government, education, and philanthropy realms.

Poetry was read, the orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music performed, photos and memories were shared, and in recollections both intimate and expansive, a portrait emerged of one of the city's most generous philanthropists — with a touch of the common man.

"Bold and dramatic decisions were made over a simple cup of coffee at his kitchen table or his favorite restaurant, Little Pete's," said Philadelphia Museum of Art president Gail Harrity about Lenfest's involvement at the Art Museum, where he had been board chairman. "He was not motivated by achieving personal recognition, but instead by civic responsibility and public service."

"The truth is, he was one of the great figures of our time,"  Columbia University president Lee Bollinger said of Lenfest, who died Aug. 5 at age 88. Lenfest was one of Columbia's largest-ever donors.

Several speakers talked about the characteristic twinkle in his eye, that he liked to offer palm readings, loved to sail, and was frugal to a fault — even after becoming a billionaire. He was as likely to be found talking to a security guard or member of the food service staff as another business leader, several suggested.

"His fortune changed dramatically, but he did not," said Harrity. "Only his ambitions grew, and yes, soared."

He loved music, and especially so when it came in the form of some young pianist or violinist pointing the way to the future. On stage were exactly the kind of students with whom he and wife Marguerite relished contact. They played a genre of lush works he loved, like Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Lenfest was passionate about art, but even more so when it could achieve some larger win for society. Without his involvement in raising millions, The Gross Clinic, the epic Thomas Eakins canvas, might have left the city. "For the Lenfests, keeping that painting in Philadelphia was a matter of civic pride," Harrity said.

When another storied Philadelphia benefactor, Leonore Annenberg, was remembered at a similar ceremony at the Academy in 2009, it came with a video greeting from Prince Charles, who called the refined widow of Walter Annenberg "a philanthropist of global acclaim." For the memorial of gruff developer Willard G. Rouse Jr. at Verizon Hall in 2003, an excerpt from The Velveteen Rabbit was chosen to say something about who he was, and speakers pointedly asked the crowd where the city's next go-to man or woman would be coming from.

Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest would go on to answer — and emphatically. At the time of Rouse's death, Lenfest and his wife had just come into their fortune a few years earlier and were beginning to make their mark. In a span just shy of two decades, they gave away more than $1.3 billion to charity — money spent on expansions at the Curtis Institute of Music and Philadelphia Museum of Art, to substantially fund the creation of the Museum of the American Revolution, for college scholarships to students in rural Pennsylvania, to fund hospitals, literacy programs, and nature preserves, and on and on.

Wednesday's three-hour-plus tribute offered seemingly no end of testimony to their generosity, a montage of institutions transformed and individual lives changed.

But it took the former mayor and governor Ed Rendell to ask — as he did after Rouse died — who would take up the mantle.

"We can't slow down now," said Rendell. Lenfest would want the city to "roll up its sleeves… and keep it moving forward."

Lenfest didn't just give of his fortune. Many speakers made the point that when he joined a board or took on a new project, he offered ideas and wisdom without imposing his own agenda.

"He had a sixth sense about when to get involved," said Curtis president and CEO Roberto Díaz, who also spoke of Lenfest's role as a catalyst; he often made his gifts contingent on being matched by gifts from other donors. "It was impossible to say no to Gerry," he said.

>> READ MORE: H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest Shaped Philadelphia for the Future

There are hundreds of institutions in the city that have been transformed by the Lenfests' giving, said Comcast chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts. "But I believe Gerry's most important calling and perhaps his lasting legacy is what he has done to support the freedom of the press in the city and the country," he said. "At a time when journalism has never mattered more, and has never been more fragile, Gerry stepped up to the plate to protect this most basic human right, a cornerstone of our nation and our democracy."

The two hosts of the celebration of Lenfest's life were Terry Egger, publisher and CEO of Philadelphia Media Network, and Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lenfest bought the media company and donated it to a nonprofit, and created the institute (and at first resisted putting his name on it).

Among the attendees Wednesday were representatives from existing institutions he helped to change, like Curtis, the Barnes Foundation, Mann Center, Woodmere Art Museum; groups he helped to rescue, like the Kimmel Center and Philadelphia Orchestra; and others he willed into existence, like the Museum of the American Revolution.

What all of them had in common Bollinger expressed concisely and ardently.

"The Lenfest name brings happiness wherever it appears," he said, "and it will continue to do so for generations to come."