PHILADELPHIA – Lewis Katz, a self-made man who built his fortune in New York parking lots, billboards and cable TV, and went on to buy the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, NHL’s New Jersey Devils and The Philadelphia Inquirer, died in a weekend plane crash. He was 72.
Katz died Saturday night in a Massachusetts crash that claimed six other lives. His death was confirmed Sunday by his son, Drew, and his business partner Harold H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.
Katz grew up in working-class Camden, New Jersey, and worked as a lawyer before earning hundreds of millions of dollars investing in the Kinney Parking empire and the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network in New York. He went on to become a major philanthropist in the Philadelphia region.
“You’ve got to make money in the world that we live in, in order to accomplish what your ultimate goal is. But along with making money, equally important is preserving, for the community, a community trust,” Katz testified at an April hearing on the Inquirer’s sale. “That’s what this paper represents.”
Tributes poured in from prominent figures in sports, media, politics, business and education, reflecting the wide range of his interests and charitable endeavours. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called him “a visionary”; the Yankees held a moment of silence before Sunday’s game. Temple University recalled his recent advice to graduates to “have as much fun as you can conjure up.”
“He was a visionary businessman who touched the lives of so many with his tireless pursuit of innovation and enterprise, as well as his deep commitment to his family, friends and community,” Silver said in a statement.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement called Katz a man of “tremendous influence” and sent condolences to Katz’s family and “the many organizations that benefited from his philanthropy.”
Katz, in his April testimony, said he had lost money on both the Nets and Devils, but made it big through the 2012 sale of the sports cable network.
“We lost our shirt in the Devils and the Nets,” he testified. “But for the YES network, I’d be back in my law office in Cherry Hill, waiting for the clients to come in again.”
He hoped to be a hands-off owner of the Inquirer, where his longtime companion, Nancy Phillips, was the city editor.
“I’m spending, hopefully, a lot more time with my grandchildren and I’ve opened a school in Camden for approximately 300 children,” he testified. “I’m not active in business, anymore.”
Katz had agreed to invest $16 million for a 26 per cent stake in the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News in 2012 at the behest of former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who wanted to return the newspapers to local ownership after a bankruptcy that left them in the hands of New York hedge funds.
But a feud with rival investor George Norcross, an equally powerful business leader, over the direction of the news business forced him to be more a more active owner.
Katz filed suit last year to stop Norcross from firing Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Bill Marimow. He succeeded, then joined Lenfest in bidding $88 million to buy out Norcross and his allies at an auction Tuesday.
“He was very creative, as a person and as a business partner,” Lenfest said. “He thought beyond the edge. He had wonderful, creative ideas.”
The sale had been set to close June 12, but will now be delayed for 30 days to give Katz’s family time to get the estate in order, Lenfest said.
“We’ll lose his expertise, but the paper will continue because we both intended to put a new CEO in charge of the day-to-day operations,” Lenfest said.
Drew Katz will take his father’s seat on the board of directors, Lenfest said.
“My father was my best friend. He taught me everything,” Drew Katz, who was often seen at his father’s side at business events, said in a statement on behalf of him and his sister. “He never forgot where and how he grew up, and he worked tirelessly to support his community in countless ways that were seen and unseen.”
Katz had recently given $25 million to Temple University for its medical school, and had previously given $15 million to another alma mater, Dickinson Law School, where he had graduated first in his class.
He also supported the Boys & Girls Clubs in Camden, along with many Jewish charities. Katz recently helped fund a charter school in impoverished Camden.
“There are so many organizations that he endowed, many anonymously,” Marimow said Sunday.
Marimow described Katz as a brilliant man and generous philanthropist who developed a love for journalism from a college stint working for the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson.
“That really inspired an appreciation and a love for journalism that lasted his whole life,” Marimow said.
His wife, Marjorie, died in December. His survivors include his son, daughter Melissa, and several grandchildren.
Katz, a classmate of Bill Cosby in Temple’s 1963 graduating class, had spoken at the school’s commencement last month, and received an honorary doctorate.
“Life in my view is meant to be enjoyed,” he told the graduates. “It’s meant to have as much fun as you can conjure up”