CONCORD — Lewis Katz became a towering figure in business and philanthropy, co-owning two professional sports teams and a major newspaper company and donating tens of millions of dollars. But friends say he never forgot what it was like to be raised by a widowed mother in blue-collar Camden, N.J.
They described Katz, 72, who died with three friends and three crew members in a crash at Hanscom Field Saturday night, as a man without pretense. Just before getting in a private jet that would whisk him to Concord for an education fund-raiser, he stopped by his local diner on the Jersey Shore, a hole-in-the-wall with vinyl seats.
When the waitress misheard his order — bringing raisin bread instead of raisin bran — Katz cheerfully ordered another slice and left a $20 tip. That was typical, said friend Joseph DiLorenzo, who dined with him in the seaside hamlet of Longport, N.J.
“His effort and time was never spent on negativity,” said DiLorenzo, who was struggling with the news of his friend’s death during what was supposed to be a quick trip to the Boston area. “It’s hard to grasp, because it’s so raw.”
Katz — a household name in Philadelphia as an owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper and the largest donor in Temple University’s history — did not limit his giving to Philly and neighboring Camden.
In Longport, a town of 1,000 year-round residents that swells to 4,000 people in the summer, “he was so generous that you were almost afraid to tell him what the town needs, because if they needed a fire engine, he’d have two fire engines delivered tomorrow,” DiLorenzo said.
Katz seemed to adopt a more-the-merrier approach with friends. When he bumped into a neighbor, Anne Leeds, just before leaving for the Massachusetts fund-raiser, he invited her to come along, DiLorenzo said. Katz’s group flew to Hanscom for the launch party for a national education program started by the son of Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian who has written about several presidents.
Katz had also invited close friend Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, but Rendell declined because of a speaking engagement, the Inquirer reported.
After the last of the other 200 guests emptied out of the tent in Goodwin’s Concord yard, Katz and the three friends he brought — Leeds, Susan Asbell, and Marcella Dalsey — stayed for dinner with the Goodwins Saturday evening before returning to their waiting Gulfstream IV. All were killed, along with the as-yet-unidentified crew, when the plane crashed on takeoff.
“Lew Katz was my cherished friend of nearly 20 years. He was a force of nature,” Goodwin said in a statement, noting that they talked Saturday night about their “shared passions for sports and journalism, politics and history. But the last thing he said to me upon leaving for the plane was that most of all what we shared was our love and pride for our children.”
Goodwin and her husband, Richard, an adviser to Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, hosted the party. It was a celebration, fund-raiser, and launch for the Concord River Institute, an organization to train teachers, administrators, and students to replicate an interdisciplinary program their son, Michael, developed while teaching at Concord-Carlisle High School.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to the seven people who lost their lives in this horrible tragedy, and to their families and loved ones,” said Michael Goodwin, who founded the institute after creating Rivers and Revolutions, a school-within-a-school, at Concord-Carlisle. “The death of Lewis and his colleagues is a crushing and devastating loss.”
Asbell, a childhood friend who was in her late 60s, joined Katz in contributing time and money to the Boys & Girls Club of Camden County and was active in the Jewish community of South Jersey, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Asbell — the wife of a former county prosecutor — was “passionate about the Club and the children in her hometown of Camden,” said Bernadette Shanahan, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club.
“There are simply no words to describe the depth of our sorrow and loss,” Shanahan said by e-mail.
Leeds, a 74-year-old grandmother and retired preschool teacher, was a next-door neighbor to Katz in Longport and the wife of a Longport commissioner, similar to a selectman.
Dalsey, a 59-year-old mother of four from Haddonfield, N.J., served as executive director of the Drew A. Katz Foundation — named for Katz’s son — and president of KATZ Academy Charter School in Camden, which she cofounded with the family, according to the foundation.
Inquirer editor Bill Marimow said Katz brought youthful enthusiasm and commitment to community to his ownership stake in the parent company of the Inquirer, Philly.com, and the Philadelphia Daily News. Just last week, Katz and a partner prevailed after a multiyear struggle to buy out other partners for control of the company.
“It’s such a shame, because he was just starting to really bear the fruits of his labors,” Marimow said Sunday. “He was an incredibly warm, generous, and gregarious person. He treated everyone — whether it was a maintenance person, a receptionist, a person making a turkey sandwich for him at the deli, or the chairman of the board of a Fortune 500 company — with equal measures of dignity and warmth.”
Katz believed in the power of good journalism and was prepared to invest in it, emphasizing a strategy to unite the strengths of the Philadelphia papers and Philly.com, said Stan Wischnowski, the Inquirer’s executive editor, calling Katz’s death “very difficult.”
“He was very engaged about the future, and he did not mince words regarding the challenges we are facing,” Wischnowski said, recounting their last conversation Friday. “He was saying all the right things, that you’ll have all the resources you need.”
Drew Katz, who will replace his father on the media company’s board, issued a statement calling his father his teacher, mentor, and best friend.
Like Katz, Leeds was known for her dry wit, easy warmth, and devotion to grandchildren, friends said. She was a well-read woman who drew laughs with situational humor while running raffles and raising money for the local Holy Trinity Parish, said Regina Tepedino, a fellow parish trustee.
“The whole parish is shocked,” she said.
Mike Cohen, a former Longport mayor and the town’s resident historian, called Leeds nurturing. Like Katz, he said, she was “good people.”
“Mrs. Leeds knows everybody, talks to everybody. Any time we need something or if we have a party at City Hall, she’s involved serving and taking care of people,” he said. “The whole community is a little upset today, very sad.”
Dalsey, who went by Marcy and ran the Katz foundation, spent three decades working to improve education and aid the less fortunate; she also opened an ice cream parlor in Haddonfield. John Quinesso, who taught two of Dalsey’s sons and one of her two daughters in elementary school, called her a dynamic, energetic woman with a social conscience.
“She had a great personality and just a lot of shine to her,” he said. “Just a humanist.”
Lewis Katz, whose father died when he was an infant and whose mother raised him on a secretary’s salary, worked in his early 20s as “leg man” for legendary Washington columnist Drew Pearson, doing Pearson’s behind-the-scenes reporting, Marimow said. Katz won the job after driving Pearson from the train station to a speaking engagement at Temple.
Though Katz left journalism for law school, he kept his passion for it as his career in law, banking, and business flourished. He developed a parking-lot and billboard empire and became owner for a time of the New Jersey Nets basketball team and New Jersey Devils hockey team while also holding a stake in the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network.
Katz remained lifelong friends with his schoolmates from Camden and Temple, including college classmate Bill Cosby, who encouraged Katz to join the university’s board in the 1990s. He would contribute $25 million alone to its medical school. Katz also gave $15 million to Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, his legal alma mater.
“Life in my view is meant to be enjoyed,” Katz told Temple graduates last month, when he received an honorary doctorate. “It’s meant to have as much fun as you can conjure up.”
Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino, who grew close to the Katz family during his time with the Philadelphia Phillies, tweeted a picture of himself with Lewis and Drew Katz. “Love you like a dad! You taught me the value of helping others and giving back!” Victorino wrote. “Numb right now.”