By Joan Capuzzi Giresi

Wealth can rid one of life’s many annoyances. Among the peskiest of these, perhaps, is waiting. Waiting for interest rates to fall. Waiting for clothes to dry. For a table. A bargain. A bus.

Once, as the Honorable Walter H. Annenberg W’31 Hon’66 navigated the steps of a medical building in Philadelphia on his way to a doctor’s appointment, he noticed an elderly African- American woman standing outside, lingering expectantly. He asked her if she needed a ride somewhere, and she replied that she was waiting for a bus. Leaving his appointment an hour later, Annenberg was dismayed to see her standing there in the December chill, still waiting.

“He grabbed her arm and said, ‘We’re going to take you home,’” recalls Annenberg’s longtime chauffeur, Philip Howe.

As they drove the woman to her South Philadelphia home, chatting along the way, it became clear that she had no idea who Annenberg—publisher, ambassador, billionaire, art collector, philanthropist—was. He didn’t seem to care, says Howe. His only concern was easing the burden for this woman, whose quiet plight probably had aroused no more than a few anesthetized glances from the scores of doctors, nurses, patients, and delivery people who had passed her. Somehow, as though a fish could understand thirst, he understood her struggle—humanity’s eternal one to catch a bus, eat a meal, nourish a mind, just get through life unmaimed and perhaps progress a little along the way.

“He was a man of passion, compassion, and action. A man of few words and many deeds,” said Dr. Vartan Gregorian Hon’88, former Penn provost and current president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as he eulogized Annenberg at a memorial service held a couple months after his death on October 1 at the age of 94 [“Obituaries,” November/December]. “He believed that with wealth comes responsibility. That from those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

A wise investor, driven businessman, and brilliant visionary, Annenberg launched Seventeen magazine during the World War II years and TV Guide—the most profitable weekly ever published—in 1953. He rode the broadcast wave as well, building stations and unveiling era-defining programs like American Bandstand. By the time he sold the family business, Triangle Publications, in the late 1980s, Annenberg had tacked three more zeros onto the estate left to him by his millionaire father. With equal energy, he then set about giving much of his money away.

In the course of his long life, Annenberg received numerous honors—including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1986 and Penn’s Medal for Distinguished Achievement in 1994—but according to Dr. Gail Levin Gr’74, executive director of the Annenberg Foundation, he felt that the highest compliment one could receive was to be called a good citizen. An oft-repeated statement Annenberg used when making gifts reads: “It is the obligation … of those who have been fortunate in life to support those who are less fortunate. And if you don’t understand that, you’re not very much of a citizen.”

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Annenberg’s office at his foundation’s headquarters in Radnor, Pennsylvania, remains as he left it. “He felt connected personally to each grantee,” says foundation director Gail Levin Gr’74. Photography by Kyle Cassidy

 
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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03