A businessman who made people laugh

Posted: June 03, 2014

HE MOVED FREELY in the worlds of business, government, education and journalism, and those who knew him in all those worlds mourned Lewis Katz yesterday.

His philanthropic activities were nearly the stuff of legend, including a $25 million gift last year to his alma mater Temple University, which will name its medical school after him.

It was just a few weeks ago that Katz spoke at Temple's commencement ceremony. The speech was, according to Temple board of trustees chairman Patrick J. O'Connor, "among the most inspiring ever given."

"His humor, along with stories of his path to success in business and in life, moved our graduates to their feet," O'Connor said. "It was one of the proudest days of his life."

Temple president Neil D. Theobald commented, "Lewis' impact on this university will be felt by Temple students for decades to come."

"How can you not truly admire a man who came from very humble beginnings and through his brilliance and hard work became extraordinarily successful?" asked Michael Days, editor of the Daily News.

"How can you not admire a man who generously gave both his time to a community and to institutions that helped to groom him, and to those that he believed were essential to a vibrant democracy? His bid for these newspapers and the website just days ago very much speaks to that conviction."

Ed Rendell said he had never seen Katz happier than he was last week when Katz and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest entered the winning bid for the company that owns the Daily News, the Inquirer and Philly.com.

And that was saying something, because Lewis Katz was, to seemingly everyone who knew him, a most happy fella.

Rendell, the former governor and mayor, said his wife, U.S. Appelate Judge Marjorie "Midge" Rendell, told him in a call from Florida, "When you were seeing Lewis for dinner, nothing could make you sad that day.

"You knew you were gonna smile and laugh. You knew when you saw Lewis you were gonna kid back and forth. It was just the nature of the beast."

Former President Bill Clinton, who also called Rendell yesterday, said: "He always made me laugh. No matter how tough things were going, he always made me laugh."

There were many uplifting comments as Rendell took calls in his office in the Bellevue in reaction to the shocking death Saturday night of Katz, 72, and six others aboard a Gulfstream IV that crashed and burned as it was about to take off from Hanscom Field, north of Boston, for a flight to Atlantic City.

Rendell said he had been invited to go along on the flight to attend an education event in Concord, Mass., on Saturday afternoon at the home of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, Richard Goodwin, but declined because of a speaking engagement.

Katz was described by many associates as a "visionary businessman," who made a fortune in parking, banking, billboards and real estate and the ownership of sports teams since he left a marginal existence in his native Camden.

And it seemed that everything Katz did, whether in business or philanthropy, was done in high spirits.

"Any time you were having dinner or lunch or going to a ballgame with Lewis, it was all just hysterical, and he was so unbelievably funny, and so unbelievably spontaneous," Rendell said.

He got the "biggest kick" out of doing things for people, Rendell said.

"He was truly a Damon Runyon-esque figure, even in the way he dressed," Rendell said. "He always wore colorful suits and colorful shirts and colorful ties. That's just the way he was."

Katz once sent his own plane to Mississippi to take a woman who had won an award to the White House because she couldn't find transportation.

"Sure, he did the big gifts, the $25 million to Temple, the $15 million to Penn State, but he also did little things like that, and he was just so good at it," Rendell said. "He would do amazing things, which no one would ever suspect that someone could do.

"He did stuff because he liked people. He didn't have to have any payoff."

Katz once had a driver who lived in a run-down neighborhood of the Bronx, Rendell related. Katz bought the man a house in North Jersey, "because he didn't want this guy's kids to be exposed to a dangerous neighborhood."

When Clinton called Rendell to reminisce about Katz, he said: "I'm very sad today. He was really a good guy."

(Katz, whose many acquisitions included the New Jersey Nets basketball team, once beat Clinton in a one-on-one game in then-Mayor Rendell's office.)

Lobbyist Holly Kinser entered Rendell's office yesterday with her dog, Ruby, to share memories of Katz.

She said Katz once made a phone call that got her mother into New York University's medical center for treatment.

"He helped me out," she said. "He helped everyone out."

One of the reasons Katz was happy that he and Lenfest became sole owners of the media company was his fondness for good journalism.

Bill Marimow, Inquirer editor whose firing by then-publisher Robert J. Hall partly precipitated the split with the faction headed by George Norcross, said Katz "loved good journalism and loved good journalists."

"He was really an exceptional person, warmhearted, generous and brilliant," Marimow said. "His presence enriched the lives of everyone who came in contact with him."

Katz cut his journalistic teeth as an errand-boy for legendary columnist Drew Pearson. He was a student at Dickinson School of Law when he worked for Pearson, whose column "Washington Merry-Go-Round" exposed political and governmental wrongdoing.

Pearson had Katz running all over Washington, to politicians' offices and governmental agencies, to get background for his columns.

It gave him an education in the rigors of the profession from the ground up.

His fellow investor, Lenfest, said Katz's death was a "severe loss." He said Katz's son, Drew, will be placed on the company's governing board in place of his father.

Drew Katz, 42, issued a statement in which he said he and his sister, Melissa, greeted news of their father's death with "an incomprehensible amount of grief and the heaviest of hearts."

He said his father was his best friend. "He taught me everything. He never forgot where and how he grew up, and he worked tirelessly to support his community in countless ways that were seen and unseen.

"But his greatest accomplishment by far was being the most amazing father to my sister and me, and grandparent to his four grandchildren."

Drew said the loss was especially severe since it came so soon after the death of their mother, Marjorie Katz, who died on Dec. 20 at age 70.

Lewis Katz was born in a rowhouse in the Parkside neighborhood of Camden. His father died soon after his birth and his mother raised him on her salary as a secretary at RCA.

He attended Lincoln Grammar School, Hatch Junior High School and Camden High School, where the 6-foot-2 Katz played junior-varsity basketball. He then went on to Temple University's Dickinson School of Law, now part of Penn State University, and The Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands.

He became a lawyer, a Camden County freeholder and a Democratic power broker.

Katz made his fortune investing in the Kinney Parking System and the Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network in New York. He formerly owned the NBA's New Jersey Nets and the NHL's New Jersey Devils.

He was former chairman of Interstate Outdoor Advertising.

Flyers owner Ed Snider said he and Katz were as close as brothers. "Lewis was the epitome of the word 'mensch,' " Snider said. "He was a wonderful human being."

There was a moment of silence in honor of Katz at Yankee Stadium before the start of yesterday's game against the Minnesota Twins. He was also a minority partner of the Yankees.

Katz made many efforts to help his native city, one of the nation's poorest. He helped build two Boys & Girls Clubs in Camden, and was a member of the board of governors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

He founded KATZ Academy, a charter school in the Parkside section, and a second KATZ Academy opened in the city's Cramer Hill section.

Katz helped fund a new home for Nazarene Baptist Church, and endowed an annual scholarship program for children of the congregation. He sponsored outings and field trips. He also provided scholarships for students of parochial schools.

He was also active in Jewish causes. He helped build Jewish community centers in Cherry Hill and Margate, N.J.

He was director of the Katz Foundation, which supports a variety of charitable, educational and medical causes.

As a lawyer - a founding partner of Katz, Ettin & Levine in Cherry Hill - he once represented disc jockey Jerry "The Geator" Blavat.

"I mourn the loss of a friend," Blavat said. He said Katz was always low-key, even when he visited his club, "Memories in Margate."

"He just loved life," Blavat said. "He loved helping people without anyone really knowing it. He loved being around real people."

Katz was a man of many interests. His interest in history inspired him to buy the only known signature made by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg on the occasion of the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln's signature and an autograph book signed by other dignitaries that day are on loan to the National Constitution Center to be displayed as part of its permanent exhibition, "The Story of We the People."

- Staff writer Jason Nark

contributed to this report.

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