Mourning the loss of H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest

August 06, 2018

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

I am very sorry to say that we have lost another great friend of the University in H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who died on Sunday at the age of 88 in his beloved home city of Philadelphia.  Gerry was a wise and deeply engaged Trustee, one of the most generous donors in the history of the institution, and, most importantly, a true colleague in every major undertaking of the University over the last two decades.

The philanthropy Gerry and his wife Marguerite directed to Columbia has been notable for its extraordinary breadth, informed by their wide-ranging and visionary commitment to so many worthy endeavors in our society, from the fine arts and liberal arts education to law and sustainable development.

To celebrate, reward, and retain professors who embody excellence in the classroom, Gerry established the Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award honoring exceptional teaching and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students in the Arts and Sciences; today we know them simply as the Lenfest Awards. 

To further strengthen Columbia’s world-renowned faculty, Gerry made it his personal mission to meet the Columbia Campaign’s goal of endowing 50 professorships in the Arts and Sciences, and through the “Lenfest Challenge” helped to create 25 faculty chairs.

To ensure that our new Manhattanville campus develops broad and deep ties to the vibrant, local arts communities of Upper Manhattan and throughout New York City, Gerry supported construction of the Lenfest Center for the Arts and he had reason to be proud of the record that the Wallach Art Gallery and School of the Arts have already established in fulfilling that mission. And to combat climate change and to improve public health, he also generously supported Columbia’s Earth Institute and Medical Center.

Gerry’s impact was, of course, felt at his alma mater, Columbia Law School, where he served on the Board of Visitors and the Dean’s Council, endowed professorships, and supported the construction of the school’s premier residence building, Lenfest Hall. His service was recognized by the Law School with its Distinguished Achievement Award and the Medal for Excellence. In 2009, Columbia University proudly bestowed upon Gerry an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, one of many honors and prizes he was awarded for his pioneering philanthropy and civic leadership. 

For twelve years, Gerry was an essential member of our Board of Trustees, contributing his sophisticated insight and management experience to university governance. But as the deeply reported obituary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer reminds us, Gerry’s impact on his adopted hometown and its world-renowned cultural institutions was nothing short of breathtaking. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Barnes Foundation, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Museum of the American Revolution all have Gerry to thank for his transformational stewardship.  In recent years he took it upon himself to ensure the future of quality journalism in Philadelphia by purchasing the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News and creating an innovative non-profit foundation to support such local journalism. This is obviously a mission that closely parallels Columbia’s own commitment to ensuring the future of great journalism in the digital age and we can be proud that Gerry was sure to include the University’s expertise in building this novel media organization. 

Gerry and Marguerite devoted themselves not only to building great mission-driven institutions but, through their Lenfest Scholarship Program, to personal engagement with young people from low- and moderate-income families in South Central Pennsylvania—investing in the support they need to attend college and make the most of their lives. They also generously supported the educational institutions they attended, including Mercersburg Academy, Washington and Lee University, and Wilson College.

If one thing is clear it is that Gerry Lenfest made the most of his life, not only as a successful attorney and cable television entrepreneur, but as a truly great citizen of the nation and world. Columbia has so many reasons to celebrate his life and lasting legacy, even as we mourn the loss of the wisdom, humor, and friendship he shared with those around him. Our condolences go to his beloved Marguerite and the entire Lenfest family.


Lee C. Bollinger