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Lenfest's fortune building started in Lebanon

Written by Staff Report/The Lebanon Daily News | Aug 7, 2018 3:34 AM
gerry_lenfest.jpg

FILE PHOTO: The late H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, owner and Chairman of Philadelphia Media Network (PMN). (AP Photo/Rich Schultz, File)

(Lebanon) -- H.F. Lenfest spent a great part of his life giving his fortune away - and he built that fortune in part from a simple start in Lebanon.

The former media mogul and philanthropist died this weekend due to complications of a chronic illness, at age 88.

Born March 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 died suddenly when he was 13, and his father decided to send him to the Mercersburg Academy in Franklin County, PA for his final two years of high school. 

As a student he was a member of the baseball, soccer and track and field teams, was active in the school's theatre company, and served as a debater.  He was part of Mercersburg class of 1949.

According to the Associated Press, Lenfest graduated from Washington and Lee with a degree in economics in 1953, served with the Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, and got his law degree from Columbia.

He worked for a New York law firm before landing a job in 1965 with Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications, which owned TV Guide, Seventeen magazine, several TV and radio stations, and cable franchises.

In 1973, Annenberg decided to sell the cable assets. Lenfest, with the help of two investors, ended up buying the system in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

"I was editorial director and publisher of Seventeen magazine and I had an office on Park Avenue. I had a good salary," Lenfest recalled in 2000. "I left all that to work out of my basement for 12 years, not nationally known, not a good salary. I used to sleep on the sofa in Lebanon, because I couldn't afford a hotel room."

That one system in Lebanon eventually became Suburban Cable, the 11th-largest cable company in the country.

Lenfest expanded slowly at first. He grew the system in Lebanon, set up cable franchises in towns around Philadelphia and by 1981 the company had about 40,000 subscribers. The company acquired systems in and around San Francisco and pushed hard to expand in the Philadelphia area.

By the time Lenfest sold Suburban to Comcast in 2000, it had 1.2 million subscribers.

He was also part of a group that purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com in 2012, and became sole owner of Philadelphia Media Network in 2014. Two years later he donated the entities to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media. 

"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."

Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, also financially contributed to many of Mercersburg's programs, ranging from financial aid and the endowments to faculty support and the renovation and construction of new facilities. Over the years, the couple has given more than $100 million to the academy, including a $35 million gift in 2000 for its Mightily Onward Campaign.

In addition, the Burgin Center for the Arts and Lenfest Hall were largely supported by the pair, and show their dedication to ensuring that Mercersburg students, faculty and staff benefit from the best facilities.  

The couple also worked hard to secure broader support for Mercersburg. Lenfest and his wife 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 current head of school.

The Lenfests have donated to other organizations, as well, including giving 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 and Wilson College. 

Lenfest has been honored as a member of the Cable Hall of Fame. He also received other awards, including the Horatio Alger Award, the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement from the Pennsylvania Society, and, most recently, the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy with his wife.

Lenfest and his wife were married in 1955. They have three children - Diane Lenfest Meyer, H. Chase Lenfest and Brook J. Lenfest - and four grandchildren.

 

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and The Lebanon Daily News.

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