Beyond philanthropy, Lenfests show personal commitment

Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest at the Curtis Institute of Music, which they have given millions.
Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest at the Curtis Institute of Music, which they have given millions.
Posted: May 10, 2009

When Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest sit still long enough to accept the Philadelphia Award this week, it will be entirely appropriate to fill the air with honorifics and superlatives:

The big cash behind the expansion of the Curtis Institute of Music. On track to become the most generous donors in the history of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

But the unseen hands of the Lenfests as civic catalysts have been every bit as deft as the ones signing checks.

"He does not give just for the sake of giving. He becomes involved in the things he gives to. He's a very smart fellow," said Ralph J. Roberts, a longtime friend and, as founder of Comcast Corp., former business rival.

"Gerry draws all his friends into his other philanthropic activities," said Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger. "I feel like I've done more for the Curtis Institute of Music than I've done for any nonprofit institution other than Columbia."

It's hard to believe now, but the Lenfest name scarcely would have stirred the lust of fund-raisers a decade ago. Then, in 2000, the family's net worth jumped $1.2 billion when Harold FitzGerald "Gerry" Lenfest sold his cable business, the Philadelphia region's largest.

The couple have worn their wealth as if it's a temporary condition, which - at least in scale - it is: The Lenfests decided to distribute the vast majority of their proceeds to charity; now, nine years later, they are coming to the end of a spectacular philanthropic spree that has given away or committed nearly $800 million.

"We've given a lot of money to a lot of organizations, and I'm not sure we can keep going at this pace. We've given away the bulk of our wealth," said Gerry Lenfest, 78. "We'll have to go into hibernation."

Not hibernation, perhaps - and they will hardly be destitute. Lenfest has not forgotten how to make money. He is involved in a variety of business pursuits and investments - two car dealerships in the area, a boatyard in Rhode Island, a company that develops training products for pilots and other air crew.

Lenfest largesse will live on through the Lenfest College Scholarship Program and, in a more modest form, through the smaller charities established by the three Lenfest children at their parents' behest.

But regardless of their future philanthropy, the couple will be given a civic tip of the hat to the Lenfest Decade, as it might be called, when they are honored Wednesday with the Philadelphia Award - a medal and $25,000 honorarium - in an Art Museum ceremony. Founded in 1921 by Edward W. Bok, the Philadelphia author and editor, the award is given in recognition of accomplishments during the previous year.

Lenfest said there was no overarching philosophy to the couple's giving. "We're open. We're not closed to ideas like saving the ocean, or global warming, or things we never thought about before we first started.

"First, I don't believe in family foundations. Each individual should have their own foundation without interference. Second, I don't believe in perpetuity. Our foundation will end no later than 30 years after the death of Marguerite and me. And we don't give to individuals, only 501(c)3 charities."

The rich may not be like you and me, but somehow the Lenfests never got the message.

Recently Marguerite thrust a ceremonial shovel in the ground to mark construction of the Curtis Institute annex, then returned to the couple's condo on nearby Rittenhouse Square to wonder aloud about where to tote her vacuum cleaner for repairs.

She power washes their deck. When they fly to Florida, it's in coach. They don't have a maid or a cook. Most of the year they live in the same 2,800-square-foot house in a suburb north of Philadelphia that they bought in 1966 for $35,000.

The Lenfests' interest in philanthropy predates the sale of Lenfest Communications Inc., Roberts noted. But money unquestionably has given Gerry Lenfest entrée. He could not be chairman of the boards of the Art Museum, the Curtis Institute, and the American Revolution Center - simultaneously, no less - if he weren't worth a bundle.

The Lenfests' giving has been national and international. But regionally, their philanthropy has had far-reaching effects on many fronts.

Without their money and activism, the Barnes Foundation would not be moving to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, nor would Curtis be undertaking its largest expansion. Without $93 million in Lenfest gifts and pledges, the Art Museum might not have had the courage to expand and renovate on the same scale. And students in Franklin County, Pa. - and more than 100 others from relatively rural areas of Pennsylvania - might not have had the chance to go to college.

Since 2000, 180 groups have received gifts totaling between $100,000 and $93 million, and many more have been given smaller ones. Sometimes money comes through the Lenfest Foundation, sometimes from the Lenfests personally.

Brian L. Roberts, Ralph's son, who is Comcast's chairman and chief executive officer, has worked with Lenfest in business partnerships over the years. He said Lenfest brought "serious purpose to philanthropy, with a businessperson's ability and a drive for results and accountability."

And, he said, Lenfest has never been happier.

"I've seen many other people of his generation retire or sell, and most of them are incredibly unhappy and bitter today," said Roberts, whose company acquired Lenfest Communications in 2000. "You don't sense any of that with Gerry. You get a sense that he was born to do what he's doing now. And he never forgets where he came from."

"Marguerite and Gerry are philanthropic rock stars," said Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca W. Rimel, who has thrown Pew's weight behind the Lenfests on some important projects. "I don't think probably any other two individuals have stepped up in such a bold fashion and have given so much of themselves and their resources to not only making Philadelphia a rich community, but also the role that they have played on a national stage."

The Lenfests are the fourth-most-generous donors to Columbia in its history, Bollinger said, having given more than $100 million - but that's not their chief distinction.

"A lot of times someone graduates from a school and they give back to that school, but Gerry, who graduated from the law school, has also given to to arts and sciences, the Earth Institute, and medical school," he said.

The Lenfests didn't come from old money. Marguerite Lenfest, 75, was born Marguerite Brooks in Bryn Mawr Hospital, was raised in Philadelphia's West Oak Lane section, and attended Girls' High. Her mother grew up in Vineland, N.J., and her father, an insurance adjuster and broker from South Philadelphia, "was the most perfect father anyone could have. He was supportive. He would take me into the office. Took me fishing. He came to see my hockey games out at 33d and Dauphin. And just was always there."

After graduation, her father enrolled her at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. "That was the way it was," she said. "When you were told you were going here or going there, you did."

Lenfest's father was much the same. A Brooklyn-bred naval architect, Harold Churchill Lenfest closely managed his son's decisions. Then again, the situation may have warranted it.

Gerry Lenfest, born in Jacksonville, Fla., was raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., and on the family farm in Hunterdon County, N.J. Most of his boyhood was divided between Scarsdale and the farm, a commute that provided him with his first entrepreneurial exploits.

"We went out there on weekends and would bring back a crate of eggs," said Marie Lenfest Schmitz, Gerry's twin sister. "He would go around and sell the eggs in the neighborhood. . . . He was a leader and a salesman who could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge."

Schmitz said she was the shy one, which posed a challenge when she had to sell Girl Scout cookies.

"In those days we went door to door by ourselves, and I just couldn't do it. Mother said, 'Gerry, you have to help her.' He sold 72 boxes. He really went far afield. He sold more boxes than anybody in our troop. But he neglected to fill out the forms, since in those days you first collected the money and then delivered the cookies when they came in. Well, I didn't know who to deliver them to."

At 13, their lives changed dramatically when their mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Their father hired a Pennsylvania Dutch housekeeper to care for the children, "a wonderful woman" remembered by Lenfest for her pies (she used lard in the crust) and the way she bought bags of feed based on their designs so she could recycle them into her wardrobe.

He was sent to Newtown's George School, but after a year the dean suggested that he not return. Flemington (N.J.) High School was next. "Rather bitter" about his mother's death, he tended to play hooky.

"The farm was nine miles from school, and if I didn't feel like going, I didn't go. . . . My father saw me in trouble academically and sent me to Mercersburg Academy, which really turned me around. I learned to study and enjoy studying."

After graduation from Mercersburg, southwest of Harrisburg, his father offered to send him to college - if he knew what he wanted to study. But he didn't. He spent time as a roughneck in the North Dakota oil fields, as a farmhand, and on a ship carrying oil between Venezuela and Europe.

"The ship returned to Philadelphia in October, and my father walked on board and said, 'I've enrolled you at Washington and Lee,' " the university in Lexington, Va. "He said, 'Do you want to go?' "

What had changed his father's mind about college? "I don't know. I had no choice. He was of the old school." And in the end, "it was a grand experience."

After graduating from Washington and Lee in 1953 with a degree in economics, Lenfest joined the Navy, serving aboard destroyers. He married Marguerite in 1955, having met her four years earlier in Ocean City.

The young couple lived in Manhattan's West Village, where her salary as an elementary-school teacher supported the couple until he graduated from Columbia Law School.

"They were some of the happiest times," he said. "We didn't have a pot to piss in, and we were happy."

He took a job with the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, which led to an encounter that changed everything that has happened to the couple since.

Walter Fletcher, a senior partner, often took Lenfest along on business trips. In 1965, Fletcher pulled him onto a train to Philadelphia to meet one of his clients, Walter Annenberg. Annenberg, it turned out, was looking for a staff attorney for Triangle Publications, and Lenfest, Fletcher decided, would take the job.

Triangle owned television and radio stations, TV Guide, and Seventeen magazine (as well as The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News), and after five years Lenfest was put in charge of its new communications division, which made him editorial director and publisher of Seventeen and president of cable.

He learned a lot, he said, watching Annenberg's willingness to take chances, make mistakes, and invest enough confidence in staffers to let them do what they'd been hired to do. "Individual responsibility - no committees," he said of Annenberg's management structure.

Later, Walter and Leonore Annenberg's style of philanthropy also would be an inspiration. But it was the risk-taking that Lenfest first tried on: In 1974, helped by loans and two investors, he bought from Annenberg two cable systems with 7,600 customers that formed the core of Lenfest Communications.

The company took shape in the Lenfests' basement.

"He brought home a pile of information from Triangle and said, 'I want you to run the office,' " Marguerite said. So she took a course in accounting at Upper Moreland High School. "I guess I learned by doing. I did all of it - accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll."

She continued in the business side of the company for 25 years.

"I enjoyed it," she said.

"Did a good job," he said.

According to Comcast's Brian Roberts, Lenfest Communications grew in an unusual way for a cable company: Rather than acquire properties anywhere and everywhere as they came on the market nationally, it grew solely in Philadelphia's suburbs.

Along the way, there were legal hiccups. The Justice Department alleged in a 1994 civil suit that the company had deprived film companies of millions in movie royalties. The company admitted no guilt but paid $5 million to "avoid potentially costly and time-consuming litigation," in the words of Samuel W. Morris Jr., vice president-general counsel for the Lenfest Group.

In 1995, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint alleging that Marguerite and son Chase had bought shares of stock in Telecommunications Inc. - then the largest U.S. cable company - before the announcement of TCI's merger plans with Bell Atlantic and Liberty Media (on whose board Gerry Lenfest sat). After three years, the case was dismissed.

"The judge threw it out," Lenfest said. "He turned to the SEC attorney and said, 'You don't have a case here.' After it was over, all 12 jurors congratulated Marguerite and me."

By the end of the '90s, the privately held Lenfest company had become the region's largest cable operator, with 1.2 million subscribers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, and its presence in Comcast's backyard made it an attractive prospect. In a series of complex negotiations, Lenfest Communications sold its controlling half of the company to AT&T - which already owned the other half - for $2.2 billion; AT&T, on the same day, dealt the company to Comcast.

What happened after the sale was one unusual decision after another.

Lenfest took $60 million and distributed half to rank-and-file staff and half to middle and top management. "They had built the company," he explained. "I've been very fortunate in life to have had people around me who are good at what they are doing."

Lenfest Communications was owned by the whole family, so when it was sold he asked his three adult children to set up their own charities.

And he and Marguerite decided to give away most of their wealth.

When Brian Roberts said they hadn't forgotten where they came from, he wasn't invoking a populist homily: Both had long been interested in philanthropy, but since 2000 they have been retracing their steps, so to speak, doling out their fortune in big chunks.

Mercersburg Academy, which taught Lenfest to "enjoy studying," was among the first to be remembered, receiving in 2000 its largest gift ever, $35 million. Their giving to the school continues.

Wilson College, Marguerite's alma mater, has received more than $25 million, and Washington and Lee, where Lenfest's father enrolled him, more than $80 million. Columbia has gotten more than $100 million. (The latter two also had received gifts before 2000.)

The Lenfests fell in love with new institutions along the way. Gerry's 2006 election as chairman of the board of the Curtis Institute was engineered by a friend, civic leader Richard A. Doran, whom he succeeded as chairman and who died in 2007. He was supposed to stay a year, he said, but keeps getting himself in deeper.

Their giving has a substantial national component, having helped make possible the Visitor Center at the U.S. Capitol, work at the Library of Congress, and the Lenfest Ocean Program, a marine research and policy group managed by the Pew Charitable Trusts from Washington.

Giving in big, bold strokes was an Annenberg move, too.

"I got my start in business through Walter Annenberg. He gave me an opportunity to buy his cable system, and I had great respect for Walter. But I really loved Lee," Lenfest said of Leonore Annenberg. "She had impeccable taste, and she cared a lot about people and causes."

Big gifts are generally Gerry's doing, smaller ones Marguerite's, the couple said. But an exact accounting reveals a more complex process. Some couples might finish each other's sentences, but when the Lenfests' thoughts dovetail, one seems happy to grant the floor to the other while sitting back and smiling.

Lenfest can become emotional - as he does when speaking about Anne d'Harnoncourt, the late Art Museum director. His wife, according to Pew's Rimel, is "smart, tough, intellectually curious," and - as a former teacher - deeply committed to children's issues.

"Gerry is the captain," Rimel said. "But to get the ship from point A to point B you need a first mate, and that's Marguerite."

Some observers say Gerry likes to give with his heart, and that it's Marguerite who knows how to say no.

Rimel prefers to put it like this: "Marguerite has a very big heart, but often in a partnership there's one person who puts on the brakes and another who puts on the gas. They complement each other extremely well."

Marguerite would prefer to avoid the limelight. At first, she wanted to decline the Philadelphia Award. "When people want to recognize you, I say a simple thank you is sufficient," she said.

Similarly, the two share loyalty to a modest lifestyle. Yes, they have some toys - a yacht, a house in Florida. And they once made plans to move; 58 acres in Unionville were bought, an architect hired, a hole dug, and construction begun.

Then Lenfest asked his architect how big the house would be. "He said, 'Well, 13,000 square feet, before we fix up the basement.' I thought for a moment, and I said, 'You know what? Fill up the hole.' So I had the most expensive hole in Chester County. We didn't build the house."

Lenfest's philanthropy extends to honoring relatives. The new aquatic center at the Central Bucks Family YMCA is named after Inez Lenfest (nee Hutchinson) of Ardmore, who became his stepmother when his father remarried in 1947. She turns 100 in September. "She brought our family back together," he said.

The Lenfest children are starting to flex their philanthropic muscle.

Diane Lenfest Myer, 47, who turned away family associations by naming her charity the Allerton Foundation, declined to speak for this article. She is clearly interested in animal causes and autism, according to tax forms listing gifts.

H. Chase Lenfest, 45 and a serious squash player, has given through his foundation to athletic organizations, such as the Police Athletic League, and to education and the arts.

Brook J. Lenfest, 40, uses his foundation to support film (he has been a producer) and other arts, as well as issues related to homelessness and incarceration. But the "core focus is on education," he said, especially Mastery Charter Schools, a Philadelphia network of high schools and college-prep schools.

"I saw all the money Annenberg spent on education with no improvement" - Annenberg's $500 million gift to 18 school districts in 1993 did not bring the reform he hoped for - "and thought of ways where maybe I could be involved in improving education systems in Philadelphia."

Of his parents' decision to give away so much of their wealth, he said simply: "I think it's very nice."

The three have been raised with a consciousness about giving, and one day may take up the mantle on a larger scale. Are other potential Gerry and Marguerite Lenfests developing quietly in the community? "I hope so," Rimel said. "I may not have met them yet, but I would love to."

"One of the cool things about philanthropy is people can make wealth - not necessarily in a short period of time, but they can invent a widget or start a service and get wealthy and become philanthropic," said Eileen Heisman, president of the National Philanthropic Trust.

With the Lenfests, though, it's not just the money that makes their presence so large. Their personalities have had a cascading effect on the willingness of others to give.

Case in point: When Gov. Rendell decided to commit $15 million in state money for the expansion of the Curtis Institute, he said he had done so because Gerry twisted his arm.

As Lenfest's twin sister said: "Gerry's a charmer."

Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at

comments powered by Disqus