Successful 38th Annual Wharton Award Dinner

Three Stellar Honorees Shine on Gala Evening at Park Hyatt,
Marked by Eloquence of Honorees:
Steve A. Lerman, W'69
Leslie Morgan Steiner, WG'92
Perry Winter Steiner, WG'93
and their Introducers

After a gracious introduction by Susan Small Savitsky, this was Steve Lerman's response:

Thank you Susan for that very kind introduction and thank you Alan and the Wharton Club for this award, for which I am very grateful. And congratulations to Leslie and Perry on their accomplishments and their recognition. I am honored to be in their company.

This podium is familiar to me. Both of my sons had their Bar Mitzvah parties in this room. However, on those occasions I gave a long-winded, largely incoherent speech, probably because I was footing the bill for the entire dinner, including the obligatory rock and roll band. Tonight, however, I will be considerably more brief and hopefully more focused. And I will try to avoid George Jessel’s admonition that “the human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you start to speak in public.”

To be totally honest, I have received so many advantages and opportunities in my lifetime that it seems inappropriate to be receiving awards. I have been blessed with a wonderful family, dominated by my wife Charla, as well as my four fabulous children, a couple of whom are actually threatening to leave the payroll of the human ATM Machine in the foreseeable future. I have a diverse and supportive group of friends, many of whom I met at Penn in the late 1960s. I am associated with an exceptional group of people in my law firm, many of whom are with me tonight. Hopefully, they are not feeling unduly pressed into service by their managing partner. And, most relevant to this evening’s event, I have had a long-standing and very rewarding relationship with my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

I first became involved in undergraduate financial aid at Penn about a decade ago, pretty much by accident. In February, 1997, Alzie Jackson, the beloved houseman of my fraternity who had been a fixture and source of continuity for hundreds of Penn students for over forty years, passed away. Notwithstanding the absence of a formal education, Alzie’s exploits and achievements were legendary.

A marvelous human being, Alzie was one of the most inspiring and influential people I have ever met. Alzie ran away from his home in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, to Harlem when he was 16 with $5 in his pocket, and never could afford to go to college; in fact, when he was in his mid-forties, we took turns tutoring him in the Fraternity House until he earned his high school equivalency degree, of which he was very proud. Despite Alzie’s humble educational background and financial limitations, he overcame adversity to become a world renowned hatmaker, whose unique creations were displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and whose prowess was featured in USA Today, Ebony and other mainstream publications. Ultimately, he became a professor at the Moore College of Art, teaching what became the most popular course in the school’s history; it had a two-year wait list.

To memorialize Alzie’s remarkable legacy at Penn and his belief in the importance of a college education that he never received, we decided to try to raise $100,000 to establish The Alzie Jackson Financial Aid Scholarship. Today, that scholarship is endowed with almost $700,000, and provides full grant packages to two students, in perpetuity. Moreover, fulfilling one of Alzie’s dreams, the first Alzie Jackson Scholar was his own grandson, Ari, the first person in his entire family to attend college, and a graduate of Penn’s Class of 2002.

Subsequently, when one of my Fraternity Brothers passed away, I co-founded a second financial aid scholarship, raising another $250,000. The Marty Sender Scholarship is awarded to a financially disadvantaged undergraduate pursuing a degree in journalism.

A couple of years ago, Susan Savitsky asked if I would co-chair a scholarship initiative on behalf of MARAB, focused on the DC-metropolitan area. We proposed to raise $1 million over five years; Penn of course upped the ante to $5 million over three years. We acquiesced, figuring that if we couldn’t raise $5 million in three years, we would just extend the campaign until we hit our number. But thanks to Penn’s Development Staff, and particularly my friend Tina Cowan who is here tonight – and truth be told, she was the “closer” who did most of the heavy lifting – we raised $7.5 million in two years, an amount sufficient to support twenty-five DC-area students with full financial aid grants, in perpetuity. The generosity of Penn alumni, families and friends never fails to amaze me.

Establishing a level playing field in the higher education arena though “need blind” admissions is a relatively modern phenomenon. But Penn and other high-quality institutions have correctly concluded that qualified students must be able to obtain access to a preeminent education regardless of their financial circumstances. From a broader perspective, if we are going to have any chance of tackling the myriad and perplexing problems of our world, it is essential that opportunity and hope – and consequently the ability to make a difference – extend beyond the well connected and financially privileged. Otherwise, I fear that we are headed down a daunting road. And as Mark Twain once noted, “If we don’t change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

At a Chinese restaurant a few weeks ago, my fortune was that “A leader is powerful to the degree he empowers others.” To the extent that I have been fortunate enough during my life to occupy positions of leadership – in my family, my fraternity, the communications Bar, my law firm and in these fundraising efforts – I hope that whatever I have been able to contribute has encouraged and empowered others. I hope they will use that power not only to fulfill their personal aspirations, but also to give back in some way – to their schools, their communities, their friends and colleagues, and, importantly, to those who are disadvantaged by dint of circumstances over which they have no control. In particular, in my efforts for Penn, I hope that I have helped to empower deserving scholarship recipients who, with their educational dreams realized, can and will impact our society in a positive, productive way. If that is the result, there could be no more gratifying return on the investment of my time and energy.

Thank you for listening and thank you to the Wharton Club for this tremendous honor.