Lewis Katz was "most spontaneous person I've ever met," says Rendell

Posted: June 03, 2014

LEWIS KATZ cherished his private jets. The aircraft enabled him to go just about anywhere - or to send others wherever they needed to go - on a whim.

"He loved the plane because it gave him the freedom to do things on the spot," Katz's longtime friend, former Gov. Ed Rendell, told the Daily News, adding that Katz owned two planes and a helicopter. "He was the most spontaneous person I've ever met."

It was reportedly on one of Katz's planes, a Gulfstream corporate jet, that Katz, 72, died in a fiery crash Saturday night in Massachusetts. Just four days earlier, he and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest had purchased at auction the Daily News, the Inquirer and Philly.com after nearly a year of infighting among the media group's ownership.

Three guests and three still-unidentified crew members - two pilots and a flight attendant - also died. Nobody survived.

Katz's longtime companion, Nancy Phillips, city editor of the Inquirer, was not on the trip.

Among Katz's guests was Anne Leeds, 74, a retired teacher and neighbor of his who was the wife of Longport commissioner James P. Leeds Sr.

Rendell said Susan K. Asbell, whom he described as a friend of Katz's from "down the shore," was also on board. Asbell, 68, of Cherry Hill and Margate, N.J., was president-elect of the Boys & Girls Club of Camden County and the wife of former Camden County Prosecutor Samuel Asbell.

Marcella Dalsey, executive director of the Drew A. Katz Foundation, named for Katz's son, and co-founder of the KATZ Academy Charter School in Camden, was also on the plane.

The plane, bound for Atlantic City, began to take off from Laurence G. Hanscom Field in Bedford, 23 miles northwest of Boston, about 9:40 p.m. Saturday. It never left the ground and ran off the runway, plummeting down an embankment and bursting into flames, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator told reporters in Bedford yesterday. It was unclear last night what went wrong, and the NTSB was investigating.

Katz and his guests had attended an event Saturday evening for the Concord River Institute, a school-aid organization in Concord, Mass., at the home of a longtime friend of Katz's, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and writer Doris Kearns Goodwin. Rendell said Goodwin's son is involved with the institute.

In a twist of fate, Rendell had twice been invited along for the trip. The former governor, who described Katz as being "like a brother" to him for the last 25 years, said he declined Katz's invitation because he wanted to keep a speaking engagement yesterday morning at the Little Shul synagogue on 4th Street near McKean in Pennsport.

"The great irony of it is, if I hadn't had the speech at the Little Shul, I might have been on that plane," Rendell said yesterday. "I was inclined to go up, but I knew I had this speech early Sunday morning, and I knew we wouldn't get back until 2:30, 3 o'clock at night."

Rendell said he ran into Katz by happenstance on Friday in Rittenhouse Square as he shopped for produce and Katz dined alfresco at D'Angelo's Ristorante Italiano on 20th Street. Katz, always persuasive, again suggested that night that Rendell join them on the trip to Massachusetts.

"We talked and laughed and joked. And then he said, 'You really ought to come. Doris [Kearns Goodwin] would really like to see you,' " Rendell recounted. "And I thought about it again, but . . . I said no."

Rendell said that since the end of his stint as governor, he's flown on Katz's private jets about 25 times. He said Katz's flight-crew members were skilled and attentive.

"I'm mystified at what happened, because the pilots maintained their own plane. I had total confidence in them, because they had the best reason to make sure it was safe - they flew it every day," Rendell said. "They were great pilots. I have no idea what could have happened."

In Cherry Hill yesterday, children wearing shirts with the name "Katz" lingered in the parking lot of the Milton & Betty Katz Jewish Community Center that Katz endowed in honor of his parents.

The JCC was hosting a children's triathlon beneath blue skies, and Jennifer Dubrow-Weiss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, said Katz would have been happy to see it.

"He was our philanthropist," she said. "He was the guy who believed in the sense of community, believed in making it stronger and empowering people to make them better."  

Meanwhile, George E. Norcross III and two other former co-owners, outbid by Katz and Lenfest last week for the media company, issued a statement of condolence yesterday:

"We are shocked and deeply sorry to hear about the tragic death of Lewis Katz. Our sincere condolences, thoughts, and prayers go out to his family, loved ones, and many friends and admirers. Lew's long-standing commitment to the community and record of strong philanthropy across the region, particularly Camden, where he was born and raised, will ensure that his legacy will live on."

- The Associated Press

contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @morganzalot

Blog: PhillyConfidential.com

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