The world lost a great friend on August 5 when H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a businessman and philanthropist who helped thousands with his generosity, passed away. He was one of the most generous donors in Williamson history and truly loved the school and its mission. He had been suffering from declining health for several months and was 88.
President Michael Rounds said, “Gerry Lenfest was a true friend of Williamson. He was so impressed with our efforts to help young men that he began supporting us financially shortly after learning of our noble mission. He made a transformational gift in 2008 at a time we were seeking supporters of Henry Rowan’s matching gift initiative and recently made another very generous gift. I can’t help but compare the similarities between Gerry Lenfest and Isaiah Williamson. Each man came from humble beginnings, worked hard to become successful, made a fortune, and then turned to philanthropy because they wanted to help others. Gerry Lenfest was truly a great man who loved Williamson and we will miss him.”
In 2008, when a team from Williamson asked Lenfest if he would be willing to give to a $5 million matching gift offer made by Henry Rowan, he said no, but he would give $20 million to strengthen Williamson’s endowment if Rowan would also give that amount. They both did and forever changed Williamson history. Most recently, he made a very generous gift of $5 million.
Recently, when asked by a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter during an interview what his favorite charities were, he included Williamson among his top four favorites.
Lenfest was born on May 29, 1930 in Jacksonville, FL, and grew up in Scarsdale, NY, and Hunterdon County, NJ. After graduating from the Mercersburg Academy, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Washington and Lee University in 1953, served in the Navy, and then earned his LLB from Columbia Law School in 1958. He went on to serve 24 years in the Navy Reserve.
He began his career at the firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell before becoming associate counsel to Triangle Publications, Inc., where he later became head of the Communications Division. After purchasing two cable companies, in 1974 he formed Lenfest Communications and along with his wife, Marguerite, built it into the Philadelphia region’s largest cable operator.
In January 2000, he sold his company to the Comcast Corp. and turned his attention to philanthropy, vowing to give away all his money while still alive. He gave over $1.3 billion to 1,100 organizations, mainly educational and cultural and those dedicated to the preservation of history and the environment. His highest priority was to build self-sufficiency through education.
He served as chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Curtis Institute of Music. He created the Lenfest Ocean Program, was the largest donor to the new Museum of the American Revolution, and also supported the Barnes Foundation. Not afraid to take a risk, even in old age, in 2016 he purchased the company that publishes the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com because he believed in the importance of journalism.
Williamson will hold a memorial service at a date to be announced.