More than 1,400 people gathered last week at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia last Thursday to pay tribute to Leonore Annenberg, who died in March at the age of 91. Her passing brought together dozens of luminaries including Supreme Court justices, governers, mayors, and reporters. A central theme of the tribute: Lee Annenberg cared deeply about democracy and treated all she encountered with dignity.
“Lee was forever young and ageless,” Andrea Mitchell, NBC news correspondent, told the audience. “Her legacy will certainly live on in the educational institutions she benefited.”
Learning Matters is part of the Annenberg legacy, but our connection came about in an odd—but certainly not unique—way. I never met Walter Annenberg, Mrs. Annenberg only once in passing, but they supported our work for nearly a decade.
And if my answering machine had malfunctioned, it might never have happened.
Here’s what I remember. I had been out of the office for a few days, filming somewhere and then moderating a panel at the United Nations. I returned to the office late one night and noticed the blinking light on the answering machine. A voice introduced herself as “Gail Levin with the Annenberg Foundation.” And she said, “We are wondering whether you would like some support for your work.”
Can you say ‘speed dial’! I would have called back immediately if it hadn’t been after 10 PM, and you can bet that I called Dr. Levin first thing in the morning. She told me that Ambassador Walter Annenberg really appreciated what we were doing on PBS and was wondering if we had adequate support.
I was speechless. Anyone in the business of trying to raise money for a non-profit knows how difficult it is, and here I was being offered money, no string attached. I don’t remember how we arrived at an amount, or even what it was. But their support, only now coming to an end, meant that Learning Matters was free to concentrate on covering public education. Because of Walter and Lee Annenberg, I did not have to spend half of my time, or more, looking for dollars.
I got to know Gail and Scott Roberts pretty well over the years. Neither one ever ‘suggested’ a story or an approach to coverage. Even when I asked (as I sometimes did), they were reluctant to scale the wall they erected between funder and grantee.
The Annenbergs supported hundreds, probably thousands, of institutions and organizations. Those in and around Philadelphia must be hoping that someone will step up. Education and arts groups are concerned as well. Somehow, most of us will survive financially (we hope).
But will anyone ever replace the Annenbergs as patrons, as exemplars of the responsibility that great wealth brings? Let us hope so.