Philanthropist Gerry Lenfest remembered by those he helped in education

"He lived life fully and fiercely."

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, 88, a Philadelphia philanthropist who died Sunday, donated more than $1 billion to education, journalism, and the arts, among other initiatives in Philadelphia and surrounding areas.

“It’s hard to look around the city and not see some pillar of our community that he has not touched,” said Pedro Ramos, CEO of the Philadelphia Foundation, who worked closely with Lenfest to create the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

Despite his large monetary contributions, the attribute that his friends and colleagues remember most is that he invested in people.

Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, got to know Lenfest when he and his son, Brook Lenfest, invested in Mastery.

“For someone who was an icon in Philadelphia, he was incredibly personal and down-to-earth,” Gordon said. “I remember one time we got sandwiches, and he knew the guy at the deli who made the sandwiches and his whole story.”

Gordon said Lenfest took time to meet with him to give him management advice consistently after they met.

“He just believed in people,” he said. “He helped me believe in myself and the work we were were doing. He gave encouragement that the impossible could be done and put confidence in us as an organization to face and persevere through whatever obstacles or controversy we were facing.”

Ramos said Lenfest was eager to use his business and journalism experience to be more than just a benefactor for the Lenfest Institute.

“He wasn’t one to do things in incremental, tentative ways. If he committed to something, he wanted to do it right,” he said. “With the journalism institute, it’s really incredible that he invested so much of his time and experience along with his money to make sure it got off to a strong start.”

Other than journalism, Lenfest’s philanthropy focused largely on education. He donated to initiatives for high-quality education throughout the region, working with organizations such as Philadelphia School Partnership and Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY). He left a lasting impact on the Philadelphia charter community by being an early supporter of Mastery Charter Schools, along with his son Brook.

“The Lenfests believed that education was a gateway to opportunity and that education could change lives,” Gordon said, “and he was a passionate believer in the power of entrepreneurs to do things that hadn’t been done before.”

Mark Gleason, executive director at Philadelphia School Partnership, said, “He understood deeply that you need different learning pathways for different students. Gerry and [his wife] Marguerite’s immense education philanthropy had impact for young students and high school students, and private and Catholic schools, and charter schools and traditional public schools.”

Donna Cooper, executive director at PCCY, knows Lenfest in part because of his friendship with her grandparents and in part because of his involvement with PCCY.

“Philly is a small town,” she said. “Whenever I would talk to him about relationships with people in my family, he was always so warm.”

Cooper said she is grateful for Lenfest’s homegrown approach to philanthropy.

“Just the fact that a private, family foundation like Lenfest was investing in things to boost kids’ opportunity, is unique,” she said.

“A lot of other private foundations were turning their eyes toward charters. He supported Mastery, but he wasn’t dogmatic in how he thought education could be improved. If you could truly improve the schools, he was there for it.”

Superintendent William Hite said Lenfest was a tireless champion for providing educational opportunities for all children in Philadelphia.

“Countless numbers of students and teachers benefited from his generosity,” Hite said. “From supporting our early literacy work, after-school programs and Career and Technical Education offerings, to providing professional development opportunities to our teachers, Gerry was truly devoted to making life better for so many of us.”

He said that people at the District are “saddened and immensely grateful.”

The Lenfest legacy lives on through his three children and his wife. Brook Lenfest continues to support Mastery Charter Schools; Chase Lenfest is the founder of the Lenfest Center, a youth center in the Hunting Park community in Philadelphia; and Diane Lenfest runs the Allerton Foundation, which is focused on animal welfare and land conservation.

“He transferred [the philanthropist’s spirit] to his children, all three,” Gordon said. “I work most closely with Brook, but all of his children have a philanthropic mission and sensibility that they’ve carried on.

“He loved this town. One of the things I admire about him is that he stepped up boldly. He would do things because he thought they were right. He wanted to benefit kids. He wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. He just lived fully and fiercely.”

Ramos said, “I always especially admired that he never forgot where he came from. He gave back, he valued education, he made lives better.”

Added Gordon: “This city needs more people like Gerry Lenfest, and more people to pick up that mantle.”