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Arts Desk

Scenes and Reflections from the Gerry Lenfest Memorial Service

I'm here to pay my respects. It’s a crisp, fall late morning when we file into the Academy of Music, its red velvet seats filling up with people. 

A slide show of photographs chronicles the life of H. F. "Gerry" Lenfest from his early days growing up on a farm to his final days as a philanthropist who made enormous contributions throughout Philadelphia’s institutions—in the arts, education, and the media—a man who, with his wife Marguerite, gave away millions to improve his city of Philadelphia and the lives of its citizens.
 

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A scene from the Gerry Lenfest Memorial Service at the Academy of Music on October 17, 2018.

The program begins with ceremony; a color guard honors his service in the Navy as the brass section of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra shines in his favorite arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner."

The program is long, because there are so many lives he touched, and people have vivid stories of the way he stepped up —not just with money, but with ideas, imagination, and bold vision to make big dreams a reality.

We hear from newspaper and other media people about his fight for a free press, arts and cultural leaders, university and conservatory presidents, and foundation executives and board members about how he challenged and inspired, and sparked positive change.  

We hear about just some of  the places he helped guide into the future: The Curtis Institute of Music, Columbia University, The Barnes Foundation,  The Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Museum of the American Revolution. 

Some quotes from speakers:

  • “One of the great figures of our time,” -President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University
  • “He knew art could change lives, and he knew how to harness the wind,”  -Gail Harrity, President and COO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • “A billionarie who flew coach...who changed the world because his values were unchanged by his success.”  -Jim Friedlich, Executive Director and CEO of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism

The music played by The Curtis Symphony Orchestra includes Copland's "Simple Gifts," and "Fanfare for the Common Man." Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms sings "Amazing Grace" a capella to an absolutely hushed hall. The musical selections are so perfect: because what we learn, or what those of us who knew him are reminded of, is what kind of man he was.

We hear from people who talk about what it was like to be his friend and child—a fun-loving man who liked to read palms and listen to Willie Nelson, an adventurer who loved to sail and dance, and a caring husband and father who fixed things around the house, the same house he and his wife bought as a young couple starting out in 1965.  

He was someone who liked to meet people from all walks of life.  One example?  He got to know the janitor of his building - who turned out to be working his way  through medical and business school. That man is now Chairman of the Lenfest Foundation.

He was authentic, human, and very unique.  He made a fortune, and gave it all away.

And yet, he gave more than money. “Gerry gave gifts we all can give,’ says one of the speakers.  A smile, a thank you, a word of encouragement.

The last orchestral work is Barber's "Adagio for Strings."  

As the over 3-hour program ends, I am near tears. I came to pay my respects, but I feel as if I have indeed been given a gift; a sense of optimism, that I and others have the power, and responsibility, to make a difference.  

Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" ushers us into the sunshine of a beautiful Philadelphia day.