Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibarguen never far from own immigrant story

Photo of Alberto Ibarguen during induction into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.  The photo shows Alberto Ibarguen signing the membership ledger that was first signed by John Adams.
Photo of Alberto Ibarguen during induction into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.  The photo shows Alberto Ibarguen signing the membership ledger that was first signed by John Adams.Read moreHandout

​Half Cuban, half Puerto Rican, married to an Argentinian, fluent in Spanish and English, Alberto Ibargüen seemed a custom fit for the role of a South Florida chief executive.

"Suspended between cultures and continents … a blue-eyed product of Caribbean genes … a high-culture vulture [with] a privileged Northeastern upbringing," the Miami Herald wrote on the day Ibargüen became the newspaper's publisher in 1998.

Now, as president and CEO of the charitable Knight Foundation, Ibargüen, 72, sits atop a philanthropy with $2.3 billion in assets and $140 million in annual grants.

Yet the buttoned-down exec was unafraid to get his pants cuffs dirty on the banks of the Schuylkill recently while assessing the progress of Bartram's Mile, a project co-funded by Knight and the William Penn Foundation to extend the river's recreational trail to Southwest Philadelphia, opening it to diverse users.

"We literally trudged through construction sites ankle-deep in mud," said Patrick Morgan, Knight's program director for Philadelphia. "Alberto wants, in the best possible way, to stay close to the work on the ground."

Though born in Puerto Rico, Ibargüen spent some formative years here. He attended Wyndmoor's Seven Dolors Catholic School from third through sixth grades, and returned to the city as a University of Pennsylvania law student in the early 1970s.

He will be back Thursday to be recognized by the nonprofit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians for his "unwavering commitment [to the] social, cultural and economic" betterment of immigrants. That commitment, said Welcoming Center president Peter Gonzales, is evident in many of the grants under Ibargüen's leadership to support programs that teach English to new immigrants, help them build job skills, and prepare them for the U.S. citizenship exam.

Though often the highest-ranking Hispanic in the establishment circles in which he travels, Ibargüen is never far from his family's immigrant story.

"There has been so much political heat and so little light in the arguments about immigration," he said last week from Knight's Miami headquarters. "Everybody's got an opinion. But there is one segment of millions of people who have already been vetted, they are here, they have green cards. And our focus has been on figuring out how to get them involved in naturalization so that they can be fully participating citizens [and] do the final great thing that a citizen can do, and that's to vote."

Throughout his adult life, Ibargüen has promoted civic engagement, immigrant integration, a free press, and media accuracy.

Now, amid the growing national uproar about distrust of government and media, dissemination of misinformation, and allegations about fake news, his causes have never been more relevant or intertwined.

Recently, "the Washington Post published the number of falsehoods the president of the United States said in the first month. That is a change. That is different. I don't know how society digests that kind of diet," he said. "I had no idea the freedoms we took for granted would come under such stress so soon."

More than 300 guests are expected at the Center City Sheraton Hotel, where the Welcoming Center's annual Solas Awards  — solas is Gaelic for "light" —will take place.

Judge Anthony Scirica, 76, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, who like Ibargüen graduated from Wesleyan University, said he will be there to applaud his pal of a half-century, whom he describes as "very grounded" and a "phenomenal mentor."

Donna Frisby-Greenwood, a former Knight program director, now CEO of the nonprofit Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, which channels private donations to the public schools, said she will be there to celebrate a man she described as "tough and focused when you work for him," but genuinely "caring and concerned" about employees' personal dilemmas.

Antonio Ibargüen, 57, Alberto's youngest brother, who lives in Wayne and is an executive with the water company Quench, said he would happily toast the sibling known in the family as "Tito."

"What is probably the most surprising thing about Tito [who studied liberal arts and then law] is that he loves technology," his brother said. "He was very early in understanding the impact that technology was going to have on media."

In that vein, Knight is co-funding a media innovation project through Temple University that is designed to help four major metropolitan news organizations, including the parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News,  and, accelerate a shift to digital from print.  Ibargüen is a former business-side executive at the Hartford Courant and Newsday, as well as the Herald and El Nuevo Herald. At one time, the Herald and the Philadelphia papers were owned by the same company, Knight Ridder Inc.

His widowed grandmother moved her four sons from Cuba to Philadelphia during the Great Depression. She later told the family she was drawn here in part by the good reputation of its Catholic schools, and Ibargüen's father and uncles attended West Catholic High.

Ibargüen's mother was from Puerto Rico. His parents met when his father, who worked for the pharmaceutical company Sharpe & Dohme, was assigned to the company's office in the Caribbean. About 10 years later, the family returned to Pennsylvania to live in Wyndmoor. When the father was reassigned to New York, they moved to South Orange, N.J. Alberto graduated from high school there and went on to Wesleyan, where he was editor of the school newspaper.

For six years after college he served in the Peace Corps, as a staffer in the Amazonian jungle of Venezuela, and later as a supervisor in Bogota, Colombia.

While attending Penn Law, he sometimes made ends meets by hawking Sunday newspapers on a street corner in West Philadelphia.  Ibargüen said he quickly tripled sales of the Inquirer and the Bulletin at that location by "talking to all the ladies who were coming out of St. Francis Church: 'Oh, my God, your son didn't call you? What? Well here, buy the newspaper, console yourself reading the Bulletin and the Inquirer.'" That was his pitch, and it worked.

Brian P. Tierney, publisher of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and from 2006 to 2010, said that shortly after he took over he met with Ibargüen in Philadelphia. "It was like getting a tutorial from the smartest and most genial professor you could hope for," Tierney wrote in an email.

Eric Newton, a professor at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism, worked for 15 years at the Knight Foundation. His last assignment was as a senior adviser to Ibargüen.   About six or seven years ago, the two had a conversation about media economics in the digital age and the resources needed to defend the First Amendment.  "Alberto said what we need is some kind of legal champion for the First Amendment so the future of free expression doesn't depend on whether [a company] is having a good year or not," Newton recalled.

What grew from that conversation was the Knight Institute for the First Amendment at Columbia University, a $60 million program that opened last year, with half of its funding from Knight and half from the university. It will be a setting for scholarly research, said Ibargüen, but also take on some media law litigation.

"For every important thing in America -- whether it's a spaceship or a poverty program -- there was someone who was unhappy with the status quo and wanted to take a run at the problem," said Newton. Ibargüen "is one of those people."

In 2015, Ibargüen was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, cofounded in 1780 by scholar-patriots John Adams and John Hancock. He has served as board chairman of PBS, the World Wide Web Foundation, and the Newseum. He has been a member of the boards of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and ProPublica.

With so many ways to self-identify, Ibargüen seems content to fall back on the basics. "The son and the husband of immigrants," he likes to say.

"These are the defining issues of my adult life. … Naturalization. … Integration. The way Philadelphia took in my grandmother and her four boys. That is precisely the kind of community support you want to see," he said. "For me, [immigration] isn't an intellectual issue."