Both tears and laughter filled the Temple Performing Arts Center as nearly 1,400 mourners gathered for an emotional memorial service honoring philanthropist and Philadelphia Inquirer co-owner Lewis Katz.
Heartfelt memories from family members and recollections of a benevolent and determined leader from dignitaries, like former President Bill Clinton, shed light on the life of the successful businessman who overcame a childhood spent living in poverty.
“Once in awhile, altogether too rarely in life, someone lives and just exudes…such good will and energy and joy that they create this magnetic field that draws all the rest of us in,” Clinton said, describing 72-year-old Katz, who died after his private jet crashed during takeoff in Bedford, Mass. late Saturday night.
Clinton was one of more than a dozen speakers who honored Katz during the approximately two-hour long ceremony at Temple University, the man’s alma mater, in North Philadelphia on Wednesday, revealing a portrait of a good-humored and ambitious man who led by example.
His children, Melissa Silver and Drew Katz, reminisced about their father, often holding back tears while addressing the crowd.
“He would kiss me goodbye through the spokes of our staircase,” said Melissa, recalling her earliest memory of her dad. “I would climb step by step to kiss my daddy goodbye.”
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Katz’s 14-year-old grandson, Ethan Silver – his hands buried in the pockets of his gray suit – also took to the stage to describe his “best friend” as he swayed back and forth behind the podium.
“A couple years ago, my Poppy walked into a pet shop and he walked out with a chocolate-covered dog bone,” said Ethan, recounting a light-hearted family moment. “Of course, he thought it was a delicious Italian bakery. My Poppy loved to cheat on his diet. He ate the whole bone.”
The well-spoken teen's heartfelt speech brought about the only standing ovation from the packed house, who heard more playful memories about Katz from speakers like former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Wearing a kippuh in Katz’s honor, Booker described the businessman’s mischievous side.
“One of my favorite stories is how Lewis Katz on a receiving line for a president of the United States,” he continued, “made a bet with his friend that he could tell the president a dirty joke and get away with it.”
“He whispered it into Jimmy Carter’s ear, at which point, the Secret Service grabbed him and very unceremoniously kicked him out,” he said. “I don’t think there has ever been in the history of the United States, someone who was grabbed by the Secret Service and kicked out of an establishment who was laughing and smiling the entire way.”
An emotional Rendell, who spent many Sunday mornings with Katz at Bob’s Grill along the Ocean City, N.J. boardwalk, recalled Katz’s generosity.
“After we finished, they’d give us a check and Lewis would put a $100 bill on the check,” he said. “But they never knew his name and they never knew whether the check came from him or me.”
“He was a champion for thousands who never knew his name, doing things that would never make the paper,” continued Rendell, who highlighted times that Katz gave money to a disabled person on the streets of New York, provided financial aid to a student unable to pay for her final year of college, and presented gifts to a cancer patient and his family, among others instances of kindess. “He was all our champions.”
Rabbi Aaron Krupnick, who is the current leader of Congregation Beth El where Katz was a member since childhood, explained that following the Camden native’s example was the best way to honor his life.
“Temple took a chance on Lewis and that inspired him to take a chance on a lot more people,” said Rabbi Krupnick, who called a scholarship that led Katz to attend Temple as “dollar for dollar…probably the best investment Temple has ever made.”
“Do what he did and promise yourself here and now that you’ll take a chance on someone else,” Rabbi Krupnick said. “Extend a helping hand to somebody who is forgotten and disillusioned and living without hope because those people are around us all the time and the problem is we don’t see them. But Lewis did.”
Booker reiterated the religious leader’s sentiments. “Something about the pain of his childhood, something about the death and struggle that he faced did not reduce him to be selfish and angry or full of spite,” he said. “It made him more magnanimous and loving.”
Clinton and comedian Bill Cosby, a fellow Temple University trustee and Katz's undergrad classmate, also implored the audience to take action in their own communities.
“If more of us acted on our better impulses and then kept our commitments on our better impulses,” Clinton said, “think what a different world we’d be living in today.”
“You don’t wait for people to come along and do it,” added Cosby, who donned sweatpants and a T-shirt that harkened to Katz's "self made, Philly made, Temple made" success. “You do it.”
His own relatives vowed to live up to the example the family patriarch set.
“I will do everything I can to teach you everything he taught me,” Drew told his nephew Ethan.
The 14-year-old made his own pledge.
“For as long as I live, Poppy Lewis will be in my heart,” Ethan said. “I know life without him won’t be the same, but I promise his legacy will live forever.”