2006 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Take every opportunity to learn and develop personal traits that will serve you well in life."
Gerry Lenfest, who has a twin sister, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but was raised in the suburbs of New York City. His father sold diesel engines and his mother was a homemaker. Lenfest remembers those years as happy and family-oriented, but his life changed quickly when his father purchased a working farm in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. "Working on a farm was not my dream," says Lenfest. "My father still commuted 60 miles to work each day, so milking the cows and most other chores fell to me." But real tragedy struck shortly after they settled on the farm when Lenfest's beloved mother died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. "The loss of my mother was wrenching," says Lenfest. "She was a wonderful mother and my world changed forever after she passed away."
Lenfest's twin sister was sent away to boarding school, and a woman was hired to take care of Lenfest and help with the farm work. "My father continued to travel extensively for his job and I felt completely alone," says Lenfest. "I had no vision of a positive future." Soon, his schoolwork began to suffer. In high school, he was sent him to a private school in rural Pennsylvania, but he did not do well there either and he was asked to not return. Finally, his father was able to get him into Mercersburg Academy on the condition that he would repeat his freshman year. This school, with its structure and dedicated faculty, changed Lenfest's life. He became an excellent student academically and began to think positively about his future for the first time since his mother's death.
Each summer, Lenfest worked, including a stint as a farmhand in Iowa. He also worked on a ship as a seaman. He earned a degree in economics from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, and worked each summer as a roughneck in the oil fields. He joined the Navy and was given command of a destroyer escort, which he enjoyed immensely. When he took over the ship, it had the worst record in the squadron, but Lenfest's innate leadership ability changed that. Within two years, his crew won every award in the Atlantic fleet. He served actively for two years and spent 24 years in the reserves. He was honorably discharged with the rank of captain.
Lenfest earned a law degree from Columbia University and began practicing with the New York law firm of Davis, Polk and Wardell. Seven years later, he became house counsel for Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications, Inc., in Philadelphia, which included Seventeen magazine. Five years later, Annenberg sold his radio and television stations and created a new division that included the magazine and his cable properties. He appointed Lenfest to head the new group. "I went from being an attorney to being the head of a teenage girls' magazine," says Lenfest. "When I took over in 1970, it had primarily been a fashion magazine, but the grunge look of the 1970s wasn't fashion oriented and the circulation had dropped below the advertising rate base." Lenfest spent much of his time revamping the editorial content, featuring articles about personal goals and growth. He got the circulation back up and describes his three years with the magazine as "an exciting time." But he saw real opportunity when Walter Annenberg decided to sell his company's cable systems.
Lenfest didn't have any money of his own to invest, but he found two investors in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, who would put up enough money to buy the cable systems in that town-with the promise that Lenfest would double their money within five years. As a result, Lenfest was instrumental in shaping what we know today as the cable television industry. He grew Suburban Cable from about 7,000 customers in 1975 to more than 1 million when it was sold. Suburban Cable was part of Lenfest Communications, Inc., a diversified communications, entertainment, and media company with national and international holdings. Lenfest was recognized in 1995 as a Cable Television Pioneer for his dedicated work and outstanding contributions to the industry.
When considering the advice he would offer to today's young people, Lenfest says, "You need to be a person of your word and have the respect of others. You should always try to do the right thing and live by the Golden Rule of treating others the way you yourself would like to be treated. You know you are successful when you feel good about the way you have conducted yourself in business and in your personal life."
Gerry Lenfest is an ardent supporter of education. He credits Mercersburg Academy with turning his life in a positive direction and he knows that today's youth need a good education to make their start in life. "The education programs of the Horatio Alger Association fit my own philosophy and I am honored to be a part of that now," he says. "A lot of successful people have received this award and I am doubly honored to follow them. [The Association's] book is called Only in America, and that's what my story illustrates. Only in this country could I have achieved the success I have achieved. In this country you have the freedom to become what you want, and that freedom gives you one opportunity after another to succeed."