A man who made friends and kept them

Posted: June 04, 2014

When I first met Lewis Katz, in 1976, his political acumen was already making him into a local legend.

I was working at the weekly Cherry Hill News and had figured him to be some grizzled old guy sitting in a paneled office. I envisioned being offered a cigar.

So imagine my surprise when I sat down to interview a fellow who seemed not much older than I was at the time (23). Katz was a charismatic dad in his mid-30s, sporting the era's rather egregious sartorial style - and a gregarious grin, too.

The groovy hair, the quick wit, and the twinkle in the eye all were secondary to the appraising shrewdness in the gaze, however. Katz knew how the press worked, and how to work the press. Excellent tips soon began arriving over the phone.

There was, it turned out, something of a classic urban hand-shaking, deal-making pol in Katz, who grew up poor and fatherless in Camden. The bright, athletic, and ambitious kid from Langham Avenue learned how to make friends - and make friendships last a lifetime.

While serving as a county freeholder and as chairman of the Cherry Hill Democrats in the mid-1970s, he outmaneuvered the township party's old guard. He and his allies organized hundreds of people into a grassroots effort to identify, and then personally persuade, voters.

Katz called it the "friends" system.

"We had no computers, no technology, just stacks of registration lists and three [hotel] ballrooms full of people," recalls novelist Lewis Weinstein, who grew up with Katz in Camden's Parkside section and now lives in Key West, Fla.

The find-and-then-get-out-the-vote effort included postcards handwritten by friends and acquaintances of those on the rolls. These were mailed, more than once, to thousands of voters, urging them to take their friend's recommendation and cast ballots for (among others) the future township mayors Maria Barnaby Greenwald and Bernie Platt.

This marked the start of more than three decades of Democratic dominance in what had long been a Republican-leaning township. It also helped build the modern, and predominantly suburban, Camden County Democratic organization.

By the early '80s, Katz had left local politics behind to pursue a multi-platformed business career (billboards, parking garages, sports teams) that would make him fabulously wealthy. And as the once-prosperous Camden of his youth withered, his generosity to individuals and organizations within it grew.

The two Boys & Girls Clubs he built in the city, the first on the site of his boyhood synagogue, were among the most visible parts of his philanthropy. Often, he asked to remain anonymous.

"He gave us a very generous check, and I'd never even met him," says Judyann McCarthy, associate vice president of the Center for Family Services. The money helped pay for a mentorship program for kids with parents in prison.

As a fatherless boy himself, Katz had been a frequent dinner guest at the home of fellow Langham Avenue resident Jack Yaffa.

His widowed mother "worked hard and raised him," says Yaffa, 73, a retired surgeon who lives in Coral Gables, Fla. "He was always trying to better himself."

"Lewis knew how tough it could be," retired state Superior Court Judge Isaiah Steinberg says from Port St. Lucie, Fla.

"He wanted to do what he could for other people," Steinberg, 73, says, adding that much of Katz's generosity sprang from "his kindness."

In the hours after Saturday's awful death of Katz and six others, I've heard other stories of the steely businessman's warm heart.

"I've known my share of rich and successful people and more than a few of them quickly and/or conveniently forgot those who were there at the start," wrote the blogger Dan Cirucci, who grew up in Camden and lives in Cherry Hill. "Lew never did."

I'm reminded of 2012, when I saw Katz for the first time in years. I was still carrying a notebook, he had recently become an owner of my newspaper, and both of us were no longer as hirsute as we were in the '70s.

"Kevin Riordan," he said, reaching out, enfolded me in a hug, and calling me "the nicest guy."

That was Lewis Katz.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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