He was born in the suburbs, raised on a farm, lost his way after a family tragedy, and found himself at sea. His service in the Navy was followed by a law degree, and then a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build something extraordinary. He ventured everything, creating billions of dollars in value. Then in less than half the time it took to make that money, he gave more than a billion away. H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest was a whirlwind, a man of many lives, most of which he lived out in a $35,000 house in his beloved Pennsylvania, where through his business and his philanthropy he enriched the lives of countless people from all walks of life.
Brought into the world with his twin sister in 1930 in Jacksonville, Florida, Lenfest enjoyed a relatively unremarkable existence until his father, a naval architect, decided to transport the family to a New Jersey dairy farm to fulfill a lifelong dream. Many of the chores fell to Gerry, who was none too keen to become a caretaker of cows. But that would soon be the least of his problems. His mother died unexpectedly, and his family was scattered, with his sister sent away to boarding school and his father burying his grief with work and travel. Gerry bounced here and there, getting into trouble and failing from school to school. Sent to Iowa to labor as a farmhand, he hitchhiked instead to a North Dakota oil rig.
From this chaotic start, Lenfest found his footing at sea. He joined the merchant marine at age 19 and worked for several years on oil tankers. Then he attended Washington and Lee University, and after graduating signed up as a U.S. Navy officer. Having turned around his own life, he set out to do the same with the vessel that was eventually put under his command. He took one of the worst ships in the squadron and in a span of two years “won every award in the Atlantic fleet.” After his active duty, he would remain in the reserves for 24 more years, and be an avid sailor for the rest of his life.
Two years into his Navy career he married Marguerite, an elementary schoolteacher. After his enlistment was up they moved to Manhattan, where he attended Columbia Law School, then found work in a big firm. Settled at last? Hardly.
Media magnate Walter Annenberg, a sometime client of the firm, recruited Lenfest to serve as in-house counsel for his communications empire, Triangle Publications. Lenfest wound up heading the company’s cable division not long before Annenberg decided to sell parts of it off. Seeing cable as an industry with huge growth potential, Lenfest cobbled together the $2.3 million needed to buy a piece of it himself. He lined up two local investors, who balked the night before the deal went through and told Lenfest that it was off—until their wives shamed them for going back on their word to the nice young man, and rescued the purchase.
Thus in 1974 Lenfest found himself in charge of his own tiny empire, operating out of the basement. He sent Marguerite for a crash course in accounting and furiously focused on expansion to keep the enterprise alive. He ultimately built up one of the largest cable clusters in the country with over a million subscribers in the region stretching from Harrisburg to Atlantic City. In 1999, Lenfest sold the company to Comcast for $7 billion.
With their own $1.2 billion of the proceeds, Gerry and Marguerite started the Lenfest Foundation. Influenced by the examples of Julius Rosenwald and Andrew Carnegie—“he who dies rich dies disgraced”—they decided to give most of their wealth away quickly.
They made major gifts to all their alma maters—more than $70 million to Mercersburg Academy, $28 million to Wilson College, $63 million to Washington and Lee, over $100 million to Columbia. One of the former seaman’s first major gifts was $20 million in 2004 to establish the Lenfest Ocean Program for marine conservation and research. The couple gave millions to Philadelphia-area cultural institutions like the Curtis Institute of Music and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Believing in the civic importance of newspapers, Lenfest bought the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News and gave them to the Philadelphia Foundation, along with $60 million of endowment, in the hope of establishing a model for nonprofit media in the public interest. Ed Rendell, mayor of Philadelphia and later governor of Pennsylvania, called the Lenfests the city’s “go-to couple.”
At one point, the city’s go-to couple decided to upgrade their living arrangements from the little non-air-conditioned house they bought for $35,000 decades before. Gerry purchased 500 acres of open land in bucolic Chester County, Pennsylvania, and commissioned a 16,000-square-foot house to go on it. The foundation was dug and rebar was being put in when, peering over the edge of the hole, he had a change of heart. “You know what, fill up the hole,” he said. He decided that his modest house suited him and Marguerite just fine, so he donated the land and an adjacent property to create a public nature preserve now enjoyed by thousands of people every year.
Lenfest’s next gift of land was a game-changer. Out in Valley Forge, he had purchased 78 acres to help turn a collection of Revolutionary-era artifacts into the nation’s only full-blown museum of our founding. The centerpiece of the stored collection was the tent that George Washington used as his roving headquarters during the war.
The proposed museum site, however, ran into zoning and neighborhood opposition. Determined that a proper Museum of the American Revolution was needed to honor our nation, Lenfest then personally engineered a complex trade of his Valley Forge parcel to the National Park Service in exchange for a plot in downtown Philadelphia next to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. He rescued the long-stalled museum and settled it in a perfect location visited by millions of patriotic tourists every year. “Without Gerry’s leadership I have no doubt it would not have happened,” said Michael Quinn, president of the new museum. Lenfest’s cash contribution to the museum exceeded $60 million, while he raised at least that much more from other private donors.
Lenfest was also crucially involved in making another cultural treasure accessible to the general public. Together with the Annenberg Foundation, he arranged to bring the remarkable Barnes art collection out of obscurity and into central Philadelphia. This caused no end of controversy and resistance, but once again Lenfest led an end-run around obstacles. Feeling strongly that the works deserved to be enjoyed by the public, he engineered a board takeover to bring that about.
This experience reinforced Lenfest’s resolve to give all his wealth away during his lifetime. Overseeing your giving personally, he concluded, is the only way to ensure that your priorities are achieved and your principles respected. He had already donated a majority of his wealth by the time the Giving Pledge was launched in 2010, asking participants to donate at least half their assets, leading Lenfest to quip that his signing was like “closing the barn door after the horse got out.” He and his wife chose not to involve their children in their giving, preferring to keep their parenting and philanthropic roles separate. “They say family foundations keep a family together,” he observed to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I think it probably has just the opposite effect.”
At one point Lenfest struck up a friendship with the man who emptied his trash every night at his office. Keith Leaphart had founded a cleaning service to put himself through medical and business school, with dreams of one day running a hospital. Those dreams did not survive his contact with the medical system, but Leaphart’s entrepreneurial spirit impressed Lenfest enough to bring him aboard at the Lenfest Foundation, where he ultimately became chairman, responsible for steering its giving throughout its final years, with a particular focus on helping disadvantaged urban kids. Leaphart built on a strong legacy, like Lenfest’s $10 million challenge grant in 2007 that brought Teach For America to Philadelphia.
The once-reluctant dairy farmer was also keenly interested in rural communities. Aware of the lack of economic resources in many of them, he instituted a college-scholarship program for students from Pennsylvania’s rural public high schools. It includes intense mentorship and enrichment activities from eleventh grade onward, puts young scholars in touch with talent-hunters from top universities, supports them through their college years, and creates a community of alumni who are changing the perception of what is possible for other kids back home. Lenfest often said that this was one of his proudest philanthropic achievements.
Illustrating the breadth of Lenfest’s philanthropic vision, he also became an important supporter of training for students in the skilled trades. After some years of modest support for the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, a Philadelphia-area organization focused since 1888 on helping needy boys build successful careers, Lenfest offered the historic organization $20 million to expand its offerings. “Yes, the school teaches young men a trade. But more importantly, it also teaches them how to succeed in life,” he said. “Underneath it all, there is a moral and spiritual element to the education. It’s a very powerful combination. The students there are learning to be good citizens.”
Having developed himself into the very definition of a good citizen, Lenfest knew what it took to make one. From his uncertain start, he assiduously built up his own mind and capabilities, created enormous value in a new business, then made great gifts to preserve, improve, and extend into the future the America he admired.