Mind if Jay-Z joins us? Friends recall Katz's movable feasts

Bill Cosby and Lewis Katz at Temple University in May, after Katz received an honorary degree. They had been friends since college.
Bill Cosby and Lewis Katz at Temple University in May, after Katz received an honorary degree. They had been friends since college. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 05, 2014

Robert Rovner can tick off the names of people he met through his friend Lewis Katz - Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Jim Florio, Barry Manilow, Whoopi Goldberg, Sharon Stone.

"Being with Lewis was just magic, and you never knew who was going to be there, on the airplane or at dinner," said Rovner, a former law partner and friend of 50 years.

Call it the Katz Effect: the gathering of a disparate group of people, none of whom, but for Katz's gravitational pull, would have met to exchange ideas and energies.

Sometimes it was a formal dinner, sometimes a trip. Often it happened on the spur of the moment.

Friends would make plans to see Katz, only to find he had roped in another pal - say, Chase Utley, the Phillies' star second baseman. Or an old friend from Katz's seventh-grade class in Camden. Or a financier or CEO from one of his philanthropic endeavors.

That stew of personalities, literally a movable feast, covered a spectrum of American life, including many outside the business realms where Katz earned his enormous wealth.

Katz, 72, a co-owner of The Inquirer, died Saturday night in a Massachusetts plane crash.

"He had more friends in more different places," said Patrick O'Connor, chairman of the Temple University board of trustees. "When you had him to the house for dinner, you never knew who he was going to bring. You invite him and four people show up."

Hundreds of people are expected to attend the Wednesday memorial service at Temple, where Katz served on the board and from which he graduated in 1963. On the eve of that remembrance, people spoke of the unusual human connections that occurred through and around him.

Former Inquirer metropolitan editor Stephen Seplow did not know Katz before he was swept up in December, when he attended a Free Library talk by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was discussing her book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.

At the time, Katz and fellow Inquirer owner H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest were fighting co-owner George E. Norcross III in court, seeking to reinstate editor William K. Marimow, who had been fired at Norcross' behest.

Seplow walked over to Katz to introduce himself. "I'm thankful for what you're doing," Seplow told him.

Katz said he and Goodwin, a longtime friend, were going to the Four Seasons Hotel in Center City for drinks - and invited Seplow and his wife, Phoebe, to come along.

Richard A. Sprague, the prominent lawyer, tagged along. At the hotel, two former governors joined the group - Republican Tom Ridge and Democrat Ed Rendell. The latter had been a friend of Katz's for decades.

"He was a great assembler, a sort of instantaneous assembler of people," said lawyer Stephen Harmelin, another longtime friend.

Two years ago, Harmelin was in a group the great assembler took on a trip to Necker Island, a 74-acre expanse in the British Virgin Islands owned by Sir Richard Branson, famous for his Virgin brands.

Bill Cosby was a friend of 50 years, from their days working $1-an-hour jobs at a Temple cloak room. Others at Katz gatherings came from every sphere: rap music impresario Jay Z, former Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino, Segway inventor Dean Kamen, the actress Goldie Hawn, even the ageless Philadelphia DJ Jerry Blavat, the Geator with the Heater. Not to mention Valerie Plame, the outed CIA agent, and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

"He hung out with all kinds of different people," said Ira Lubert, a partner at Quaker Partners Management in Philadelphia. "He had such a thirst for living, and learning different things, and meeting different people."

Blavat was in Florida six weeks ago when his phone rang. Katz was calling from a home he had in Boca Raton.

"You've got to come over for lunch," he told Blavat. Afterward they went to the beach, where Katz tried to stump the Geator with trivia questions on music.

Only days before his death, Katz phoned Temple's O'Connor and asked him to come meet a friend - Michael Milken.

"I didn't know he knew him," O'Connor said this week. "But I'm not surprised."

Milken once was known as the junk-bond king, having pleaded guilty in 1990 to charges of violating federal securities laws. After being released from prison, he founded the Prostate Cancer Foundation, and has raised and donated large sums for medical research, a passion Katz shared.

"I spent all of Friday with him," Milken said in an interview. "He had some strong ideas on how to strengthen the Temple health-care system, and the importance of Temple to Philadelphia."

They went to see Ralph and Brian Roberts at Comcast, met U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Phila.) for lunch, and parted about 4:30 p.m.

"Lew was his usual self - his sense of humor, his creativity, his enthusiasm," Milken said. "I didn't know it was really going to be goodbye."


Inquirer staff writers Alfred Lubrano and Tom Torok contributed to this article.

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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