Harold FitzGerald "Gerry" Lenfest '49—a luminary in the history of Mercersburg Academy and American philanthropy, and a pioneer in the field of communications—died August 5 in Philadelphia at age 88. He leaves a profound legacy at Mercersburg and in communities across the nation.
A celebration of Lenfest’s life will be held Wednesday, October 17, at The Academy of Music (located at 240 South Broad Street in Philadelphia).
Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, gave more than $100 million to Mercersburg, including a transformative $35 million gift to the school in 2000 as a lead gift in the Academy’s Mightily Onward
Campaign. The Lenfests have contributed to nearly every facet of the school’s program, from financial aid and the unrestricted endowment to faculty support and the renovation and construction of new facilities. Today, Mercersburg awards more than $7 million annually in financial aid, and the Lenfests’ focus on this priority has provided bedrock support to this crucial initiative through the years. The Lenfests’ commitment to the school’s unrestricted endowment supports every student and provides the institution with extraordinary flexibility to meet emerging needs.
Two specific buildings on campus largely supported by the Lenfests—the Burgin Center for the Arts (named for former Headmaster Walter H. Burgin Jr. ’53 and his wife, Barbara) and Lenfest Hall—underscore their dedication to ensuring that Mercersburg students, faculty, and staff benefit from the very best facilities.
Gerry Lenfest joined Mercersburg’s Board of Regents in 1989; he was appointed president of the Board in 1994 and served until 1998. As Board president, he presided over the process that led to the appointment of Douglas Hale as Mercersburg’s sixth head of school, a decision he often cited as one of the best in his career.
“Gerry changed the course of Mercersburg Academy,” says Hale, who served as head of school from 1997 to 2016. “The school was his spiritual home—a place that changed his life in immeasurable ways—and he never lost sight of the school’s impact on his life. He devoted himself to ensuring that Mercersburg would thrive for generations to come. He pushed us relentlessly to be the best Mercersburg we could be, and he never turned away from an opportunity to support us. Working for Gerry and helping to steward his beloved Mercersburg will forever be one of my life’s greatest rewards.”
Lenfest took a special interest in lifting the philanthropic sights of the Mercersburg community. In addition to his family’s own gifts, he worked tirelessly to secure broader support. He was a member of the Academy’s Mightily Onward
Campaign Steering Committee and chaired the Campaign’s leadership gifts committee. The Lenfests served as honorary co-chairs for the school’s Daring to Lead
Campaign, which was completed in 2016 and raised more than $300 million.
“Gerry and Marguerite’s legacy at Mercersburg is one that has inspired and will continue to inspire others,” says Katie Titus, Mercersburg’s head of school. “Recognizing the impact of Mercersburg, Gerry remained committed to supporting the school, guided by the belief that his two years as a student here changed the course of his life. Today’s students are blessed by the generosity of Gerry Lenfest; the school would not be what it is today without his vision, devotion, and faith. While his physical presence on our campus will be missed, his spirit will live on for generations to come.”
Born May 29, 1930, in Jacksonville, Fla., Lenfest grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., and on his family’s farm in Hunterdon County, N.J. Lenfest’s mother, Herenna, died suddenly when he was 13, and his father (also named Harold) decided to send him to Mercersburg for his final two years of high school. (Lenfest’s mother was a distant cousin of Mercersburg alumnus and Academy Award-winning actor Jimmy Stewart ’28.)
At the time, Lenfest described himself as “bitter and disoriented and not a particularly good student.” But “Mercersburg turned me around and instilled in me the desire to learn and also the feeling that if I tried hard that I could be successful in life,” he said in a 2009 address to the Pennsylvania Society, which awarded him its Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement.
As a student at Mercersburg, Lenfest lived in Main Hall; was a member of the baseball, soccer, and track & field teams; was active in Stony Batter Players (the school’s theatre company); and served as a debater for the John Marshall Literary Society. He went on to graduate from Washington and Lee University and Columbia Law School.
After serving in the U.S. Navy and practicing law at the New York firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, Lenfest joined Triangle Publications in 1965, where he held positions as associate counsel and head of the company’s communications division. He was editorial director and publisher of Seventeen magazine and president of Triangle’s cable-television subsidiaries.
In 1974, Lenfest purchased two cable-television systems with a total of 7,600 subscribers to form Lenfest Communications; when the company was sold to AT&T and eventually Comcast in 2000, its cable systems (known as Suburban Cable) had 1.3 million subscribers.
Lenfest was part of a group that bought the Philadelphia Inquirer
, Philadelphia Daily News
, and Philly.com
in 2012, and became sole owner of Philadelphia Media Network (a holding company for the media properties) in 2014. In 2016, Lenfest donated the entities to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media, a trailblazing gift that accentuated Lenfest’s commitment to a vibrant, independent press.
“My goal,” he said at the 2016 announcement, “is to ensure that the journalism traditionally provided by the printed newspapers is given a new life and prolonged, while new media formats for its distribution are being developed.”
Beyond Mercersburg, the Lenfests have given more than $1 billion to Columbia University, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of the American Revolution, Washington and Lee University, the Curtis Institute of Music, Wilson College, and many other worthy entities.
The Lenfest Scholars Foundation has provided scholarships and guidance to high-school and college students from rural Pennsylvania. At Mercersburg, the Lenfest Legacy Scholarship covers full tuition, room, and board each year through graduation to an entering ninth- or 10th-grade student who is a child or grandchild of a Mercersburg Academy alumnus/alumna. In addition, the Lenfest Endowed Scholarship provides support to many other qualified students at the Academy.
Lenfest served as chairman of the boards and councils of several nonprofit organizations, including the Curtis Institute of Music, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of the American Revolution, and the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress. He was also a trustee of both of his collegiate alma maters, Columbia and Washington and Lee, as well as Temple University.
He is a member of the Cable Hall of Fame and has received numerous other awards and honors, including the Horatio Alger Award, the aforementioned Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement from the Pennsylvania Society, and, most recently, the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy with Marguerite (presented in October 2017). Lenfest also received Mercersburg’s Class of ’32 Distinguished Alumnus Award—the highest honor bestowed upon a member of the school’s alumni body—in 1999.
Gerry and Marguerite Brooks Lenfest were married in 1955. They have three children (Diane Lenfest Myer, H. Chase Lenfest, and Brook J. Lenfest) and four grandchildren.See the Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage of Lenfest’s passing.