Nearly two decades ago, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, saw that policymakers responsible for protecting the marine environment needed sound scientific research to guide their decisions. So in 2004, they created the Lenfest Ocean Program.
It was a notable insight that led to an enormous act of generosity and was a hallmark of how Gerry and Marguerite viewed the world: They recognized needs and found ways to meaningfully address them.
Gerry Lenfest died on Aug. 5 at the age of 88 and left a legacy that also included support of arts and civic institutions in Philadelphia; scholarships for high school students in rural Pennsylvania; a new building for one of his alma maters, Columbia University; and gifts to a host of other organizations. In 2014, he and other investors purchased The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News and, two years later, turned the papers over to an independent nonprofit, a move he hoped would help the news organizations flourish and remain vital to the Philadelphia region.
He made his fortune—some $1.3 billion—building a cable television system. Since selling it in 2000, the Lenfests have given away nearly all of their fortune, determined not to leave a longstanding family foundation but to give while they were alive—“so,” as Gerry once said, “you can see the impact.”
Gerry was an avid sailor who had a love for the sea that predated his days as a young naval officer; his office in suburban Philadelphia was filled with wooden models of sailing ships. That passion for the world’s oceans fueled the efforts of the Lenfest Ocean Program, which the couple asked The Pew Charitable Trusts to create and manage for them. The program has supported dozens of reports from researchers around the world and become a model for how science can guide and improve public policy.
“Gerry’s vision has helped conserve the world’s oceans and enlivened the Philadelphia region,” said Pew President and CEO Rebecca W. Rimel. “He was a dear friend to me, and I and so many others will miss him greatly.”
Gerry Lenfest’s self-effacing demeanor and soft-spoken nature belied his success and his philanthropic vision. And near the end of his life, he answered simply when asked about his generosity: “It’s the satisfaction of accomplishing some good things in my lifetime.”