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Mercersburg Academy receives $35 million gift

April 07, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, a Mercersburg Academy alumnus, announced Friday he is giving the 107-year-old prep school $35 million to use as the school sees fit.

"This is a wonderful day," Mercersburg headmaster Douglas Hale told hundreds of students, faculty, parents and guests jammed into the school's chapel to hear the announcement.

"This is a sizable unrestricted gift," he said. "We have a unique relationship with the Lenfests."

The gift was the largest ever to the academy.

Lenfest and his wife Marguerite stood through a long ovation. He said a few words then both sat down.

"I'm pleased to give back to this school," he said.

The couple lives in Philadelphia. Lenfest served on the academy's board of regents from 1994 to 1997.

Marguerite Lenfest is a member of the board of trustees and chair of academic affairs at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., her alma mater.

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Lenfest said after the brief ceremony that he always knew if one day he became wealthy Mercersburg Academy would be the highest priority in his life.

The couple was married in 1955 and settled in New York where he worked for a major law firm, Hale said. He was editorial director and publisher of Seventeen magazine from 1970 to 1974.

In 1974, he paid $2.3 million for Suburban Cable of Lebanon, Pa., which then had 7,600 subscribers. It grew into the largest cable system in the Philadelphia area, and in January was bought by Comcast Corp. of Philadelphia for $7.2 billion. The Lenfest family gained about $2.8 billion in Comcast stock.

He said the sale of the business enabled him to give the money to the school.

In 1993 the Lenfests gave the academy $6 million for a new library.

The new gift ranks fourth among recent gifts to private high schools, including one of $100 million and three of $50 million to $60 million.

Lenfest attended Mercersburg Academy for two years from 1947 to 1949.

His mother was a distant cousin to movie actor Jimmy Stewart, who attended the school in the 1930s. She died when Lenfest was 13, so his father sent him to the school. The family was living in New Jersey at the time, he said.

"It's a good thing he did, because for the first time I learned to enjoy hard work," he said.

His fondest memories are of Bill Howard, his math teacher, who he said had a big influence on his life.

"Because of Mercersburg Academy, I went on to college, then law school," he said.

Hale said most of the Lenfests' gift will go into endowments "so we can recruit the best students, regardless of their ability to pay."

He also said the money will be used to hire the best teachers and increase the salaries of those dedicated teachers already here.

It will enable the school to establish creative new programs and renovate some of the school's older buildings.

Also on tap could be a new fine arts building, Hale said.

The $35 million elevates Mercersburg Academy into the Top 10 private high schools in the country in endowments per student, Hale said.

He said he learned a few months ago the Lenfests were going to give the money to the school.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., hosted a brief ceremony on the Lenfests's gift in his Washington office Friday morning.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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