CONCORD — When Doris Kearns Goodwin glances out the window of her study, she still sees Lewis Katz laughing with other guests on the sun-splashed lawn. When she walks down the hall, she envisions her good friend standing there, chatting with students and pulling a book from his pocket: “On the Shortness of Life.”
The slim paperback Katz had just started carrying was an appeal against wasted days by the Roman philosopher Seneca, arguing that a man who learns to live with purpose and meaning “will not hesitate . . . to meet death with steady step.”
Three hours after the party ended, Katz was dead. The philanthropist and Philadelphia Inquirer co-owner was killed, along with three friends and three crew members, when his private jet crashed during an attempted take-off at Hanscom Field last Saturday night.
“The hardest thing,” Goodwin said, discussing the sudden loss of her friend of 20 years, “is you just keep asking, ‘what if?’ ” What if she hadn’t invited him? What if he hadn’t said yes?
But of course Katz flew up for the afternoon to see her and to attend a party to support her son’s education nonprofit, and of course he brought friends. And that Seneca volume he carried with him on the flight — it’s “just beyond imagining,” Goodwin said.
Katz was perhaps the most boyish, spontaneous 72-year-old in the country and the most approachable business magnate, she said. He lived to surprise the people he cared about, to connect friends, and to do the most good with his money and his time.
Goodwin spoke Wednesday at Katz’s public memorial service at Temple University, calling it “both my unhappy fate and good fortune” to have shared the last hours of his life. On Friday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian sat on a couch in her book-lined Concord home and spoke at length about her long friendship with Katz, and about his final evening.
‘The hardest thing is you just keep asking, “what if?” ’
He was his usual self that day, a man with Catskills-comic timing who loved to kid friends and take a joke, she said. “Which president are you living with now?” he asked Goodwin, and he ribbed her about the length of her books, though he read every word. When she confessed she had just gotten a note from a reader who fell asleep with “The Bully Pulpit” — her 928-page latest, about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft — only to drop it on her face and break her nose, Katz could not stifle his laugh. “I told you!” he said.
The party in the yard that day celebrated the potential nationwide launch of an interdisciplinary program Michael Goodwin had created while teaching at Concord-Carlisle High School.
Katz, who cared deeply about improving opportunities for urban children and ending the cycle of poverty in gritty cities like his native Camden, N.J., had been excited about the national potential for the new Concord River Institute. Michael Goodwin planned the party, inviting 200 local parents and potential donors to hear from students, teachers, and a Harvard education professor. His mother, slightly nervous about hosting a large crowd without a plan for rain, invited just a few friends, but Katz was an obvious choice.
He offered to donate without being asked and flew in for the afternoon with friends he thought would appreciate the Concord River Institute and enjoy meeting Doris and her husband, Dick Goodwin, a writer and adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He brought Susan Asbell, a childhood friend active with Katz in the Camden Boys & Girls Club; Marcella Dalsey, head of Katz’s family foundation and cofounder with Katz of a Camden charter school; and Anne Leeds, a neighbor and retired preschool teacher whom Katz invited after running into her that day.
They arrived at the party just after 4. Katz gravitated to the students, while Doris Kearns Goodwin gave the women a tour of her history-rich home, from a bronze bust of Lincoln to artifacts from her husband’s days with Johnson and the Kennedys and his time as political editor at Rolling Stone.
As the party wound down, Katz continued to listen and talk with the teens — giving them his contact information, introducing them to Seneca — before a small group made plans to reconvene for dinner at the nearby Colonial Inn.
On the way to Concord Center, Katz detoured to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, wanting to show the three women “Authors Ridge,” a serenely wooded hilltop where the Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau family plots are clustered.
“He wanted to give the three guests an adventure,” make their visit memorable, Goodwin said.
That was typical of Katz, whom she first met when he sponsored a talk she gave in New Jersey 20 years ago.
“He called me up and said, ‘I’m sponsoring the lecture, and I’m paying for your hotel, so you have to treat me to a drink.’ ” He ordered a Diet Coke. A year apart in age, they laughed and connected over their shared love for history, for sports, and most of all for family. “We both knew that night, somehow, that we were going to be friends,” she said.
Katz figured if you had a private jet you might as well use it. When he learned once that Goodwin planned to drive a rental car from one remote corner of Pennsylvania to another, he shuttled her instead. He flew up to visit the Goodwins’ home in Concord, dropped in any time she gave a talk in Philadelphia, New Jersey, or New York. And he almost always brought friends.
“It’s almost like he had a flying tent,” she said.
Katz made the most of his wealth without flaunting it, a casual dresser more apt to discuss basketball than his $25 million donation to Temple’s medical school, more likely to name-drop friends from junior high than friends like President Clinton. But when Goodwin’s ill relative needed a specialist, Katz did not just offer a name, he went to the doctor’s office and watched him call, she said.
Goodwin, who worked in the Johnson White House and has written about several presidents, has moved among the powerful and famous throughout her adult life. Nearly all have erected a “protective shield” around themselves, she said, but not Katz.
“Somehow he was able to escape that,” she said.
Dinner last Saturday night was particularly joyous, with 10 people gathered around a big table, some swapping seats midway through a free-flowing conversation. Katz, who had prevailed just days earlier after a long legal slog over control of the Inquirer’s parent company, brimmed with enthusiasm over the outcome.
“It was a good time to be with him, because he was so exuberant about everything,” she said.
Presidents are never far from Goodwin’s mind, and Katz’s loss has given new resonance to a line from Taft that she quoted in her last book.
“I miss him every minute,” Taft wrote, bereft over the loss of an aide who died on the Titanic, while returning from a vacation the president insisted he take, “every house, and every tree, and every person suggests him. Every walk I take somehow is lacking his presence, and every door that opens seems to be his coming.”