Legion d’Honneur for Gerry Lenfest
Philadelphia, September 13, 2011
- H.F. Lenfest
The Ambassador of France to the United States, François Delattre, presented the honor at a ceremony in Philadelphia . Surrounded by almost 200 guests and precious artifacts from the collection of the American Revolution Center, Ambassador Delattre praised Mr. Lenfest as “an excellent friend of France” whose achievements in commerce and culture have positively impacted the lives of countless citizens of the city of Philadelphia, the state of Pennsylvania, and throughout the United States.
The Ambassador’s speech
Dear Gerry Lenfest,
Dear Marguerite Lenfest,
Dear Members of your family,
It is a true privilege and a great pleasure for the new French Consul General in Washington Olivier Serot-Alméras, for our Cultural Attaché Roland Célette and for the director of the French-American Cultural Foundation Kimberley Heatherington to be here with you tonight. And you know our honorary Consul here in Philadelphia, Michael Scullin, as well as his predecessor Daniele Thomas Easton.
We have gathered to pay homage to a great Philadelphian, an exceptional businessman, an extraordinary philanthropist, and a most excellent friend of France. I’d like to include in this homage your marvelous wife, Marguerite, who has shared every step in your long career. Each word said here today is for her, too.
I would like to welcome the other members of Gerry Lenfest’s family and his many friends who have joined us tonight to express their support and admiration.
Dear Gerry Lenfest, a childhood spent on your parents’ farm in New Jersey was undoubtedly the source of the force and determination that have characterized your entire life. It was there that you acquired your confidence in the value of hard work, your endurance, your ability to “size up” a situation and foresee its eventual outcome. It was there, surrounded by friends and family, that you developed your sterling character, your openness, your compassion for others, your optimism — in a word, your joie de vivre.
This rural environment also nourished your thirst for adventure. There are those who still talk of your fearless love of driving fast.
They remember you roaring with great panache into your parents’ farm, piloting a sleek red and white convertible, and raising a great cloud of dust and commotion as you flew over the wood bridge that crosses Lenfest Creek.
Your brilliant career as a student at Washington and Lee, and then at Columbia University’s Law School, provided you with the solid academic background that landed you a spot at Walter Annenberg in Philadelphia, paving your way for a swift rise through the ranks. Very early on, you were entrusted with running Triangle, a large group of publications.
Then in 1974, you acquired two television cable networks that Walter Annenberg wanted to sell. This opened the door to broadcast success!
The network you bought in 1974 had seven thousand six hundred subscribers — but by 2001, the Lenfest Cluster had one and a quarter million subscribers, the second largest contiguous cluster in the country!
I believe that there are three main reasons for your success:
First and foremost, Gerry, you are a people person. You have a superior ability to establish contact with others and engage them in a meaningful dialog. You know how to adapt yourself to them. You have a knack for negotiating, and for convincing people.
The development of the Lenfest Cluster in Pennsylvania in the 70s and the 80s required long discussions with officials of cities and rural areas who had to first decide whether or not to accept the idea of a cable company, and then to choose Lenfest Group among the other competing parties.
In meetings with these town fathers, you were brilliant: the farmer inside you knew how to get the farmers to listen, and, when in a cosmopolitan city, the accomplished graduate from Columbia knew how to employ the more sophisticated language required there.
The second key to your success resides, if you don’t mind my saying, in your love of and thirst for risk. In the early 70s, no one could conceive of cable television as a business venture. Why would people pay to watch TV when they already had at least five channels for free? But as a visionary, you were way ahead of the game. You never hesitated a moment to go into debt in order to get things going.
And you were proven right — your image of what cable television could be changed the broadcast landscape.
Finally I would like to mention your ability in selecting your employees.
Your motto has always been, “The right person in the right role”. You always detected the true potential of the people working with you and gave them the means of achieving it.
A perfect example of this was the young man you hired at the age of nineteen as a technician, who, two decades later, became Chief Operating Officer of the Lenfest Cluster.
You have always said you have saved a lot of money by having an open door policy, and by urging your employees to speak to you frankly about any mistakes they noticed in management or strategy.
Dear Gerry, your second career, made possible by the success of the first, is as a philanthropist. You are a man of extraordinary generosity, and you have helped numerous institutions, both educational and cultural.
I’ll mention here only a few of them: the two universities where you studied; the Barnes Foundation; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where you were chairman; and the Curtis institute of Music, where you have been chairman for the past five years. Taking the Curtis Institute as just one example, I’ll simply say that your leadership has been transformative. From the moment you began your association with Curtis, you started wondering how you could help guide this celebrated conservatory into the 21st century.
You became interested in the living conditions of the young performing artists, and after purchasing entire buildings, you created lodging for them right in the heart of Philadelphia — saving them a commute, and gaining them valuable practice time. This initiative shows how great your concern is for others, and for creating the conditions that allow them to achieve their goals.
And when you see these young people perform, both you and Marguerite enjoy the feeling of being part of a special artistic adventure each time.
It comes as no surprise that you have a love of history. The development of the world’s nations and the evolution of societies endlessly fascinate you.
That love of history is intimately connected with service to your country.
You served in the Navy for 27 years — both on active and reserve duty — commanding a destroyer escort and three destroyer reserve crews. You not only achieved the rank of Captain, you also received commendations from the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations.
You are particularly interested in the American Revolution, and took on the lofty goal of creating a museum devoted solely to that epic conflict.
Moreover, you decided it was quite appropriate to have today’s ceremony occur within its very walls, which underscores your great commitment to the project. France is especially touched that you have emphasized in the American Revolution Center the participation of French soldiers in the struggle for American independence.
This wish of yours will serve to perpetuate the deep-rooted friendship that exists between our two nations.
That leads me quite naturally to evoke, dear Gerry, a third career of yours — a very special one — that of an enthusiastic francophile.
If my sources are accurate, your first trip to France was during summer vacation. With a group of friends from your high school graduating class, you intended to tour France by bicycle.
But it seems that you quickly made some French friends with whom you were spending a lot of time, immensely enjoying their company — and subsequently ditching the bike. So, that’s how you fell in love with France.
In addition to a suitcase packed full of fine and fragrant cheeses — which you brought back on the boat! — you also took away an abiding memory of the experience, and from that point on, became an unfailing friend of France.
Your Huguenot origins and your wife Marguerite’s lineage, too, have created even stronger bonds with France. You have traveled there often, and you have, during your professional career, established a partnership with Electricité de France, the French national electric company.
I would also like to mention your exceptionally generous support of the French-American Cultural Foundation, which is the main partner of our embassy in Washington, D.C.
Thanks to your ongoing commitment, we have been able to launch new programs and exchanges between our two countries. You have even supported Kids Euro Festival, a performing arts festival for children that brings together all 27 embassies of the European Union.
We are extremely grateful to you for enabling all of these new developments.
There is within you a fascination with life, about its potential for creation and invention, about its ability to evolve and go beyond.
A great French philosopher whom you admire, Henri Bergson, coined the expression “élan vital” — “vital impetus”. It is this vital impetus that you seek in others, and that gives you so much satisfaction when you see your intuition rewarded.
There are two words that can aptly sum up your entire career as businessman, philanthropist, and francophile, and they happen to be the name of your boat —the boat on which you and Marguerite sail the seven seas.
The name of the boat conjures up everything that counts for you: agility, finesse, beauty, and generosity. In its two simple words can be found Gerry and Marguerite’s entire philosophy. You have named your boat Beau Geste.
It is this very spirit that you share with Marguerite that President Sarkozy has decided to honor, by naming you, through discretionary mention, Officer of the Legion of Honor.
Since it was founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honor has been France’s highest award and one of the most coveted distinctions in the world. And I’d like to point out that the rank of Officer is only awarded to exceptional individuals for extraordinary achievements.
Harold Fitzgerald Lenfest, au nom du Président de la République, nous vous faisons Officier dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur.