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In Memoriam: H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest LAW’58, Supporter of Columbia Faculty, the Law School, the Arts

H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest LAW’58, a cable TV pioneer, entrepreneur and prominent philanthropist whose generosity left an enduring imprint on the University, died on August 5, 2018, in Philadelphia. He was 88.

Harold FitzGerald Lenfest was born on May 29, 1930, in Jacksonville, Fla., the son of Harold C. and Herrena FitzGerald Lenfest. He and his twin sister, Marie, moved with their family to Scarsdale, N.Y., the following year. When Lenfest was 13, the family moved to a farm without plumbing or electricity near Lambertville, N.J.

Lenfest’s mother died shortly after the family’s move and his father traveled often for his job in sales of diesel engines for ships. “I pretty much ran the farm,” Lenfest once said. He attended a series of high schools before graduating from Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. Lenfest worked odd jobs, including as a farmhand in Iowa, a seaman on an oil ship and a laborer in the North Dakota oil fields. He eventually enrolled in Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., graduating in 1953 with a degree in economics, then served on a destroyer in the Navy, attaining the rank of captain. He and his wife, the former Marguerite Brooks, whom he married in 1955, then settled in Greenwich Village while he studied at the Law School. She supported the couple as an elementary school teacher until Lenfest earned his degree.

Upon graduation, Lenfest joined the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. One of the firm’s clients was Walter Annenberg, owner of the media holding company Triangle Publications. In 1965, Annenberg offered Lenfest a staff attorney position at Triangle, and Lenfest quickly rose to oversee the company’s cable television operations.

The pivotal moment in Lenfest’s career came in 1973 when Annenberg decided to sell two cable systems. Lacking capital of his own, Lenfest convinced two Pennsylvania investors to buy the entities. In exchange, he promised a 100 percent return on their investment within five years. The companies, Suburban Cable and Lebanon Valley Cable, became the bedrock of Lenfest’s privately held media holding company, Lenfest Communications.

During the next two decades, Lenfest Communications grew its subscriber base from 7,600 customers to more than 1.2 million. In 2000, the company was acquired by Comcast for approximately $7 billion. The Lenfests gave away more than $1 billion earned from the sale. “[W]e really don’t want to die with much money to our name,” Lenfest told Philanthropy magazine in 2011. “Andrew Carnegie said, ‘The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.’ That makes an awful lot of sense to me.”

Long a supporter of public institutions, Lenfest donated to Columbia, Mercersburg Academy, Washington and Lee, Wilson College (his wife’s alma mater), the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation and the Museum of the American Revolution. He also chaired the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Curtis Institute of Music. The Lenfest Scholars program, which Lenfest and his wife created in 2001, offers college scholarships to rural high school students in central and southeastern Pennsylvania. Lenfest also supported environmental causes and organizations.

The scale and breadth of Lenfest’s generosity to Columbia was remarkable. In 2005, he established the Distinguished Columbia Faculty Awards, known as the Lenfest Awards, with a $12 million gift. The awards honor exceptional instruction and scholarship, and winners each receive a $25,000 stipend for three years. Lenfest and his wife also provided funding to build and renovate the Law School’s facilities and support its faculty and students.

In 2011, Lenfest pledged $30 million to support the construction of a hub for cultural and civic exchange on the Manhattanville campus. Designed by Renzo Piano, the 60,000-sq.-ft., state-of-the-art facility opened in 2017 as the Lenfest Center for the Arts.

Lenfest also supported journalism. In 2012, he was part of a group of six investors that agreed to purchase the Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. That arrangement fell through and in 2014 Lenfest and fellow investor Lewis Katz became PMN’s owners. In 2016, Lenfest gave $20 million to create the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a nonprofit dedicated to developing and supporting sustainable business models for local media.

Lenfest was honored with the Medal for Excellence, the Law School’s most prestigious award for alumni, in 2008. Lenfest also was a Columbia University trustee emeritus, having sat on the board from 2001 to 2013, and the University awarded him an honorary degree (LL.D.) in 2009. In 2011, the College bestowed on him the Alexander Hamilton Medal. That same year, Lenfest, along with now-Trustees Co-chair Jonathan S. Lavine ’88, created the $5 million Lavine-Lenfest Matching Fund, to endow five positions for assistant professors teaching the Core Curriculum.

Lenfest and his wife were awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2017. In addition to his wife, Lenfest is survived by his children, Diane Lenfest Myer, H. Chase and Brook; sisters, Marie Schmitz GSAS’59 and Lauren; brother, Robin; and four grandchildren.

— Lisa Palladino