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Louis Appell Jr.: A private public life

Written by Mike Argento/York Daily News | Jun 29, 2016 5:33 AM
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World-renown artist and York County native Jeff Koons, left, talks with Louis Appell Jr. after the State of the City Address at Central Market in York in 2012. Koons, who was honored by Mayor Kim Bracey after her address that night, said that, after talking with Appell, he hoped to contribute to York's revitalization.(Photo: File, York Daily Record)

The philanthropist, businessman, died Monday night at the age of 92.

(York) -- One of the most telling things about Louis J. Appell Jr. is something that's not there.

There are few buildings named for him, an exception being the Appell Life Sciences Building on York College's campus.

Unlike others have done, he didn't put his name on his work. He preferred to work behind the scenes. For instance, he was instrumental in bringing baseball to York, and the construction of the ballpark on North George Street.

The only mention of his role in the existence of the stadium is a small plaque at the entrance, bearing just his initials, a cryptic tribute, if that.

He may easily have been, at one time, and even now, for all we know, the wealthiest person in York County.

You never would have known it.

His influence, and money, left a large imprint on the city and county. But he left few fingerprints, and he took no credit for his acts of philanthropy.

Yet memorials to his memory are all over the city, from the office buildings, 96 South George Street and the Susquehanna Commerce Center, to the York Revolution baseball stadium, to the housing that his company rehabbed, to so many other projects that it's difficult to list them.

He was born into the family business. His mother's side owned Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff, at one time among the largest producers of casual dinnerware in the country.

His father's side owned the Strand-Capitol Theater, built in 1925 by his grandfather, Nathan Appell, a theater mogul, and WSBA radio, which, for years, was the most popular radio station in the county.

Appell was a child of privilege. He went to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, a boarding school that counts among its alumni such notables as former President Franklin Pierce, former Sen. Daniel Webster and the scions of some of America's wealthiest families, including Rockefellers, Coors and DuPonts. Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg is an alumni.

His father was a Democrat and a big supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. He directed National Recovery Act efforts locally in the 1930s and had a large collection of FDR memorabilia.

Appell had been a life-long Democrat too, only changing his registration to Republican in 1981, a result of President Reagan's economic policies.

He and his companies' political action committees made donations to politicians on both sides of the aisle over the years. Most of the contributions, though, were modest.

However, he donated $725,000 to Gov. Tom Wolf's 2014 campaign. That was more personal than political. He was close with Wolf's parents and has known Wolf since he was a child.

He went on to Harvard University, where he earned a B.A. in business. He was loyal to his old school, often sharing information about his life with classmates through class reports compiled over the years. On the occasion of his 25th anniversary of his graduation, he shared a basic philosophy, one that he adhered to.

"It is difficult for me to be philosophical in print without being long-winded and pompous," he wrote. "So far as mankind is concerned, I maintain a basically idealistic and optimistic view of the worth and goodness of man as an individual; and a corresponding distrust of the emotional maturity and motivation of man in large masses."

He took over his family's business just four years after graduating from college, when his father died unexpectedly. He built the business into a large conglomerate that, at one time, generated annual revenues estimated to run between $250 million and $300 million a year, the exact figures unknown because the company was always privately held.

His company had national stature. Pfaltzgraff stoneware was a national brand. His media holdings, including radio and TV stations and cable TV systems, were among the largest in the country. Penn Advertising was among the nation's top 20 billboard companies.

At one time, Pfaltzgraff employed 1,500 people just in York County.

His businesses operated by a strict code of ethics, called "The Susquehanna Philosophy." He expected loyalty from his employees, and he repaid them with his loyalty to them.

His businesses were deeply involved in the community. The real estate arm built the large office buildings in York and rehabbed low-cost housing throughout the city.

He was committed not just to downtown. His commitment also extended to inner-city neighborhoods. He was a big supporter of the Crispus Attucks Community Center and its efforts in all areas, from housing to development to job training to employment.

"The Boundary Avenue development, that wouldn't have happened without him," said the center's executive director, Bobby Simpson. "You remember what Boundary Avenue looked like before that. He realized the importance of that project and helped make it happen, all of it."

Simpson met Appell shortly after taking over stewardship of the center in the 1980s, and they quickly became friends, Simpson often calling Appell for advice.

"When we met, I called him Mr. Appell," Simpson said. "And he said, 'You don't have to call me Mr. Appell. Just Louis is fine.' So I called him Mr. Louis and he called me Mr. Bobby."

In 2005, Appell began liquidating his company when it became apparent none of his family wanted to take over. Pfaltzgraff sold its pottery stores and intellectual properties, its brand, for $38.2 million. The radio stations were sold to Cumulus Media Partners for $1.2 billion. Comcast bought the cable TV systems and Internet service provider for $775 million.

In a speech at an event marking his generosity to the York County Community Foundation in October 2013, Appell addressed the topic. After describing the downtown York of his youth, he said, "Today South George Street is unrecognizable from its pre-war self, and, of course, it is a microcosm of the entire city.

"White flight has taken place, the retail stores have been replaced by big boxes out in the suburbs and the banks, like the retail stores, are virtually all owned out of town. It is obvious that this has had a huge impact on our local economy.

"Prior to the second World War profits generated by the transactions in our locally owned establishments stayed in the community. Today they are exported to such needy locations as Wall St. and Bentonville, Arkansas of all places.

"Equally dramatic has been the change in our manufacturing community. As recently as 40 years ago, locally owned firms provided the majority of employment for our skilled work force. Today that is no longer true and the majority of the profits produced by the labor of our fellow Yorkers flow far beyond our borders instead of being reinvested here. Germany, Great Britain, Scandinavia and, of course, Milwaukee, Wisconsin are the beneficiaries."

And now that he has passed, Monday night at home at the age of 92, his memorial is not structures bearing his name.

It could be said he was talking about his former businesses, now owned by large corporations that had few, if any, ties to the community.

Appell was among a group of York business leaders who signed a 2001 letter decrying the York Daily Record and the York Dispatch for their coverage of the investigation into the murders that occurred during the 1969 race riots in York.

Yet he was a deeply private man, often eschewing the public spotlight. He often turned down interview requests. He didn't like calling attention to himself. He lived with his wife, Jody, in a relatively modest English-style country house in York Township, located on an estate bearing the name Elsing Green.

He didn't seek the limelight, but he was far from reclusive. He and his wife often went downtown for First Friday, enjoying the festivities in relative anonymity.

He was a regular at York Revolution games, and attended just about every game with his wife and his oldest friend, John Zimmerman, former partner in the Wolf Organization, eschewing his private box for seats in the stands, paying for his own season tickets.

He was instrumental in bringing baseball back to York. Over the years, as plan after plan failed, he kept working on it, until it happened. He had a vision of what it meant for the city, said friend Bill Shipley, former CEO of Shipley Energy.

"He saw the difference it could make for the city," Shipley said.

He was also a fan. "I remember him saying, once, that we needed 'a more energetic second baseman,'" Shipley recalled.

His one extravagance was gardening. He had an English garden that covered about 10 acres at his home and included gazebos and sculpture. He often traveled to England - he and his wife kept an apartment in London - to visit garden shows and buy plants.

During the summer months, roses from his garden decorated the reception area at his office building at 140 E. Market St.

Zimmerman said Appell, who celebrated his birthday June 19, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just three or four weeks ago. Funeral arrangements were not complete Tuesday.

Looking back over the years, he recalled that his life-long friend did not hide from the public.

He just didn't like calling attention to himself. People who knew him described him as self-effacing and low-key.

"He did things in a quiet way," Zimmerman said. "He was a very unusual person."

READ: A private patron: Louis Appell Jr. (Part I)

READ: A private patron: Louis Appell Jr. (Part II)

These 10 links lead to stories that tell about Louis Appell Jr., his life, times, businesses and legacy:

1.Pottery put the other Foustown, the one in Manchester Township, on the map.

2.Dragon-style pottery pieces, picked up in York County, intrigue reader.

3.Pfaltzgraff afficionados grab up legacy pottery pieces, fund archives.

4. Old WSBA station: 'Another part of history has gone'. Also: WSBA exec oversaw early days of York County radio - and TV.

5.  The best available biography about Louis Appell: Private Patron.

6. Louis Appell: On the 25 most influential York Countians.  And 25 more. And here are 25 more from history.

7. York County celebs Jeff Koons, Del McCoury, Louis Appell, Art Glatfelter feted for contributions to arts.

8.York, Pa.'s, Strand and Capitol theaters have played host to silent movies and loud applause and When Ella Fitzgerald played The Strand.

9. Much of Sinking Springs Farm to remain in farmland after subdivision.

10. 5 things to know about Louis Appell Jr.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

Published in News, York

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