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Couple gives $10 million to Wilson

October 07, 2000

Couple gives $10 million to Wilson



By DON AINES / Staff Writer


CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A gasp rose from the audience of students, faculty and alumni in Thomson Hall Saturday when Wilson College President Gwendolyn Evans Jensen announced a $10 million gift to the school from Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest.

"It's remarkable for its size and remarkable for its purpose," Jensen said about the gift, the largest ever received by the college. She said the gift to the college's endowment was second in importance only to the gift given by Sarah Wilson to establish the school in 1869.

Cable television has been very good to the Lenfests and, in return, they have been very good to two Franklin County educational institutions. In April the Philadelphia, Pa., couple gave $35 million to Mercersburg Academy, the private prep school Gerry Lenfest graduated from in 1949.

The Lenfest's largesse toward Wilson College did not begin Saturday. Marguerite Brooks Lenfest, Class of 1955, said she has given Wilson $1.65 million over the years and the couple's foundation has donated another $1.2 million so far.

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"I think a women's college helps a woman gain a self-confidence that might not be the same in a coeducational college," Marguerite Lenfest said about the education she received at Wilson.

Jensen said Wilson has about 340 students in its College for Women and another 500 in its coeducational College for Continuing Education.

"The Lenfest gift increases the endowment to nearly $30 million, nearly 50 percent. Not too shabby," Jensen said during the Homecoming Week ceremony in the college chapel.

Afterward, Jensen said it was her goal when she became president in 1991 to increase the endowment to three times the college's annual operating budget.

Nine years ago the endowment was roughly equal to the annual budget, about $6 million, according to Jensen. The operating budget is now $11 million, she said.

"Five years ago we began the Forever More Capital Campaign," said Barbara M. Tenney, Class of 1965 and chair of the Wilson College Board of Trustees. "Our initial goal was $10 million. Thus far we've raised more than $35 million."

The Lenfest gift raises that figure to $45 million, and Jensen said she hopes the campaign will have reached $50 million by the time it ends and she retires in June 2001.

Along with the $45 million donated to Mercersburg Academy and Wilson College, the Lenfests have given $15 million to Washington & Lee University and to Columbia University, both of which Gerry Lenfest attended, and $6 million to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"We wouldn't have been able to make all these gifts if it weren't for the schools" they attended, Gerry Lenfest said. He said part of the success of Lenfest Communications was that "We were in the right place at the right time"

"And we took chances," Marguerite Lenfest said.

Gerry Lenfest was publisher of Seventeen Magazine in 1974 when the couple bought the cable television franchise in Lebanon, Pa., from the late Walter Annenberg. Lenfest said his office for the next 12 years was the basement of their home.

"When you own your own business, it's not nine to five, five days a week," said Marguerite Lenfest, the secretary-treasurer of Lenfest Communications and a member of Wilson College's Board of Trustees. The couple remembered the days when they hung solicitations on doorknobs to build the business.

Over the years, their cable television company, Suburban Cable, went from 7,600 subscribers in Lebanon to more than 1.2 million across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, becoming the ninth largest in the nation. In January they sold Suburban to Comcast Communications Corp.

The Lenfest's gift to the endowment was unrestricted because "Wilson College is better able to know how the money should be spent, and we don't need our names on any bricks and mortar," Gerry Lenfest said.

Jensen said at the ceremony that the gift was unusual because it was not tied to a building program, or other specific purpose. She said it will be used to bolster the endowment, rather than be earmarked for any particular project or program.

Tenney said the gift will allow the college to reduce the funds it takes from the endowment for annual expenses, with other bequests going to increase faculty and staff compensation, student aid and other uses.

"It is really a gift that will have a multiplier effect" by increasing the endowment's investment income, Jensen said. She said she hoped the gift would encourage others to support the college.

"I had been told numerous times how supportive the alumni base was," Wilson College Government Association President Elisabeth Proffer, Class of 2001, said. "Today really cemented that fact for me."

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