Son of a Brooklyn-bred naval architect, a reformed ne'er-do-well who played hooky from Flemington (N.J.) High School, a one-time roughneck in the oil fields of North Dakota, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, 81, loops back to his past with the purchase of the media company that includes The Inquirer.
The purchase wasn't "for an investment but for a public purpose," he said Monday, "to place the newspaper back in local hands."
As a young lawyer in 1965, Lenfest worked for Walter H. Annenberg and his Triangle Publications Inc. Triangle owned TV Guide and Seventeen magazines, TV and radio stations, and several cable properties, as well as The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. After five years, Lenfest became editorial director and publisher of Seventeen and president of cable.
It was the cable connection that proved fateful.
Cable then was a new medium, and in 1974, aided by loans and two investors, Lenfest bought from Annenberg two cable systems with 7,600 customers - the start of Lenfest Communications.
Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, 78, ran the enterprise from their basement while raising three children. Through acquisitions, the company expanded, and by 2000 the family decided to sell. Their take: $1.2 billion.
Unlike those who cash out and move on, the Lenfests again took a page from Annenberg and his wife, in philanthropy.
"I got my start in business through Walter Annenberg. He gave me an opportunity to buy his cable system, and I had great respect for Walter," Lenfest told The Inquirer in 2009. "But I really loved Lee," he said of Leonore Annenberg, a strong supporter of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Academy of Music. "She had impeccable taste, and she cared a lot about people and causes."
The Annenbergs' penchant to affect the destiny of institutions through philanthropy became the Lenfests' way as well. Since about 2000, the couple have given more than $800 million to higher education, the arts, and other charities. They have pledged to dispense with all of their wealth, while exercising considerable influence in the process.
Gerry Lenfest was one of the power brokers to bring the Barnes Foundation from Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway - a forced transformation, some would argue, from a quirky educational program into a more generic modern museum experience.
He was chairman of the board of the Art Museum when its director, Anne d'Harnoncourt, died suddenly in 2008, and he led the institution into a triumph as winner of the top award at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Lenfest, as chairman of the board of the Curtis Institute of Music, largely paid for an expansion of the school into a new dorm building on the 1600 block of Locust Street.
If many of his pet projects have been fruitful, others remain inchoate, such as underwriting the purchase and maintenance of the S.S. United States, now docked and decaying on the Delaware. He has been an ardent supporter of the Museum of the American Revolution Center, which is still in the planning stages. He has been a leading contributor to the recovery fund of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association in the wake of its controversial bankruptcy.
A Democrat registered in Oaks, Montgomery County, he has contributed more than $1.8 million over the last decade to political campaigns, mostly those of Democrats.
Some of the Lenfests' most generous giving has been to familiar territory.
Mercersburg Academy, which he attended, received more than $35 million; Wilson College, her alma mater, more than $25 million; and Washington and Lee University, his, more than $80 million.
Their partnership is one that comes with close consultation. Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca W. Rimel, who has worked with the Lenfests on various projects, once put it like this:
"Often in a partnership there's one person who puts on the brakes and another who puts on the gas. They complement each other extremely well."