Philadelphia business magnate, longtime benefactor and University Trustee Walter Annenberg died yesterday of pneumonia at his Wynnewood, Pa. home. He was 94.
Annenberg, a 1931 Wharton graduate, donated $120 million -- still the largest single gift in Penn's history, and at the time the largest ever in higher education -- in 1993 to permanently endow the Annenberg School for Communication which he helped create in 1958. The money also went toward the creation of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which is based jointly in Philadelphia and Washington.
And only two weeks ago, the Annenberg Foundation donated another $100 million to remodel the communication school's classrooms and revamp the undergraduate curriculum.
"He loved the students," Annenberg Dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson said. "He loved the school. His generosity was unprecedented."
Born in 1908, Annenberg expanded the family fortune after he took over control of Triangle Publications, Inc., from his father, Moses, in 1940. Under his leadership, the company that owned The Philadelphia Inquirer and two other publications was expanded and generated billions of dollars in the publishing and broadcasting industries.
Annenberg aided in the creation of Seventeen magazine and TV Guide and took over operations of The Philadelphia Daily News.
Always connected to national politics, Annenberg was named U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1969 by former President Richard Nixon. Despite initial controversy over his lack of experience in foreign affairs, Annenberg made the most out of his five-plus years abroad.
"He was a great patriot," University President Judith Rodin said. "He really felt that it was the role of the privileged in America to reach down and help to educate those who hadn't been given the same advantages."
"When he was visiting the school one time, one of the students asked him what he would like to have the students do as an expression of thanks to him for all of his generosity," Jamieson remembered. "He said, 'I want you to be a great citizen, and if you're a great citizen of this country, then everything else will follow from that.'"
Annenberg sold the rights to both major Philadelphia newspapers to Knight Newspapers in 1970 and then sold the remainder of his shares in Triangle Publications to business mogul Rupert Murdoch for about $3 billion in 1988. Forbes magazine reported recently that Annenberg was worth an estimated $4 billion.
While some say that Annenberg forced his conservative views on the newspapers he ran, Penn professors who knew him say his hands-on approach carried over into his charity work.
Communications Professor Larry Gross recalls Annenberg annually taking the entire communication school -- students, faculty and staff -- out to a fancy dinner in Philadelphia in the early 1970s.
"There was a way in which he helped create a sense of togetherness through that, which gave us a feeling that he felt about the school as if... there was some kind of connection there that went beyond writing checks," Gross said.
"It was very clearly important to him to have a sense that the students were in fact getting the benefit of the programs that he had created," he added.
In 1958, Annenberg gave $3 million to establish a school for communication at Penn. He made a similar gift to the University of Southern California to establish a communication school there in 1971.
USC also received a $100 million gift from the Annenberg Foundation two weeks ago.
Also in 1971, he donated $5.7 million to establish the Annenberg Center, the performing arts complex located on 37th and Walnut streets.
"He was an extraordinary visionary and had a deep feeling for Penn and what Penn could accomplish," Rodin said.
But Annenberg's generosity spread beyond higher education. In 1994, he announced a $500 million gift to reform and improve America's public schools. Deemed the "Annenberg Challenge," the majority of the money was spent directly on individual school systems to promote improvement.
The following year, the Annenberg Foundation donated $50 million directly to the Philadelphia public school district, a cause that Jamieson says he was always concerned with.
"He believed in the power of education to transform people's lives," she said. "There are very few individuals who both have the genius to create a great fortune and the vision to translate it into helping other people achieve."
Gross compared Annenberg to another famed benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, citing the similar cause of making knowledge available to the masses.
"Annenberg really did believe, as he always said, that his wealth was an obligation as well as an opportunity," he said. "He took that very seriously, and he really did make a difference in a way that few people of his wealth have done in recent decades."
Rodin said that in her own times of need as president, Annenberg was always there to share some of his wisdom.
"Many, many times when issues arose and I got all kinds of competing advice, I would pick up the phone and call Walter, and he would always give me a tremendous amount of time and advice," Rodin said. "And he was always right."
Annenberg is survived by his wife, Leonore, and his daughter, Wallis, who also serves as director of the Annenberg Foundation.
The University and the Annenberg School for Communication are currently planning memorial services for Annenberg, but no details for the ceremonies have been determined as of yet.Comments powered by Disqus
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