Vai's View: Wealthy philanthropist who died in plane crash remembered for anonymous generosity
Matt Rourke, AP
This week, the Philadelphia region mourned and celebrated the life of a favorite son, Lewis Katz.
Katz and six others died last Saturday evening in Bedford, Massachusetts, when his private plane crashed on takeoff as they returned from a fundraising trip in Boston. His funeral was held Wednesday on the campus of his beloved Temple University, his alma mater. Katz was the commencement speaker just a few weeks ago at Temple, where the medical school will bear his name after he donated $25 million to it last year.
Born across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey, Katz and his sister were raised by his widowed mother after his father died when he was just a year old. His mother was a secretary at RCA, which was headquartered in Camden.
Katz earned a scholarship to Temple University in north Philadelphia where he developed a friendship that lasted half a century with fellow classmate Bill Cosby, among the luminaries who spoke at the funeral, which also included President Bill Clinton.
Katz hobnobbed with the rich and powerful, yet he had the common touch. The crowd of 1,400 and another 200 in an adjoining room watching the funeral on local TV included cab drivers, waitresses and hotel attendants whom he only met once — and tipped fabulously. His daughter, Melissa Katz Silver, said he always gave restaurant wait staff the exact amount of the bill.
Mourners were an eclectic mix of working class, business and civic leaders, and even sworn enemies, like Donald Norcross, with whom he waged a bitter fight for control and ownership of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Former Phillies and current Red Sox centerfielder Shane Victorino flew in earlier in the day from Boston, because Katz was instrumental in Victorino’s donation of $1 million to the Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia. Katz served on its board.
Katz’s rise to wealth and power from such humble beginnings is well known among Philadelphians, partly because he maintained his ties to his hometown of Camden, now one of the country's poorest and most dangerous cities. He funded the Boys and Girls Club of Camden to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. Katz Academy is a charter school in Camden that gives deserving, underprivileged inner-city kids an opportunity to reach college.
While he endowed millions to schools, like the $15 million he gave Penn State’s law school, his anonymous generosity and love for people was legendary. Bill Cosby and Ed Snider, chairman and owner of the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League, both said every phone call with Katz ended with him saying, “I love you, man.”
Katz's son, Drew, told of boarding his father’s plane for the Super Bowl and recognizing a familiar face in the last row. It was the cashier at the local coffee shop where father and son often met for breakfast.
When Katz owned the New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils, his suite was filled with his high school pals. For his 50th high school reunion from Camden High, he flew 25 classmates to the Bahamas for a weekend of fun in one of his private planes. Once, while taking a group to visit a presidential library, on a whim, he prevailed on the pilot to take a detour and fly to South Dakota so they could see Mt. Rushmore from the sky.
His classmates said he didn’t do things to show off his wealth, but to allow them to enjoy it with him. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell said that to be a friend of Lewis Katz was to be familiar with the phrase, “He did what?!”
Of the many wonderful things said of Lewis Katz by a U.S. president, a university president, business leaders and complete strangers, his own family’s sentiments were the most meaningful and, in my estimation, offer the truest measure of the man.
At the memorial service, Melissa Katz Silver spoke of how her father greeted her every morning before his workday at the bottom of the stairwell with kisses. She recounted how he once fired her from his law office because she failed to print three copies of an important case. Later, when she came home dejected after being fired from a restaurant job, he encouraged her by saying, “Melis, let’s not worry about that job. It’s your last summer before you head off to college. We have plenty of time to plan your career.”
Pausing, Melissa said, “My dad prepared me for the career that I was best suited for: ‘Mommy.’”
She recounted how much her father adored her children, often asking, “Melis, do you think they’re old enough to remember me?”
Son Drew recited a John Wesley poem that was displayed prominently in his father’s office, which was a motto of his extraordinary life:
Do all the good you can
By all the means you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever, you can.
Vai Sikahema anchors the morning news for NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is a two-time NFL All-Pro and two-time Emmy winner and is enshrined in the BYU Sports and Philadelphia Broadcast halls of fame. He received the 2012 Deseret News President's Award.
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