Harrisburg philanthropist Lois Lehrman Grass died early Wednesday morning at age 90, as a result of a stroke, leaving a legacy of volunteerism and fundraising for causes that transformed the city’s landscape.
A pillar of the city’s charitable giving, she had a hand in seemingly every major Harrisburg-area institution, including the Rose Lehrman Arts Center, the Whitaker Center, the Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg and Harrisburg Area Community College.
Daughter of Benjamin and Rose Lehrman, Lois Lehrman grew up in Harrisburg and inherited a love of the arts from her mother. Grass once told The Burg magazine “my mother used to say that, if you can’t be the artist or the pianist, you can be the audience.”
In 1950, she was married to Rite Aid founder and fellow philanthropist Alexander Grass, with whom she had four children. The pair divorced in 1972. Alexander Grass would later pass away in 2009.
Lois’ son Martin Grass called his mother “a trailblazer, a pace-setter,” who was already active at the age of 31, organizing the Aurora Club (known today as Aurora Social Rehabilitation Services) in 1962.
“This is back [in in a time] when this was a pretty conservative town,” he said. “She’s been involved in so many different organizations. And the thing about my mom is, this isn’t a woman who was writing a check, although she wrote a lot of checks. She got involved. She was hands on, totally hands on. She wanted to be involved, wanted to make a difference. And she did.”
“It’s easier to say what she doesn’t support,” said Jeff Lynch, commercial filmmaker and personal friend of Grass. “She’s done so much for so long. She’s a pretty remarkable woman.”
“When I think of Lois, the thing that occurs to me first and foremost is that she was an always wanted to be thought of as a volunteer,” said Mike Greenwald, one of the founders of Harrisburg’s public radio station WITF, who first met Grass when she took a position on the board. “And she was a volunteer of the highest order, in my view.”
Greenwald, who would go on to become a personal friend of Grass, said that her definition of philanthropy went far deeper than giving money.
“That’s never what she ever wanted to be known for,” he said. “What I think defined Lois was the people and organizations she believed had promise and purpose, the talents she nurtured, the careers she fostered, the organizations and community institutions she helped build and sustain. That is what was most important to her.”
Some of the institutions where Grass would take an active hand, in either directly building or sustaining, include the Greater Harrisburg Foundation (known today as the The Foundation for Enhancing Communities), the Aurora Club, the Hamilton Health Center, the Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg, the Harrisburg chapter of the Red Cross, and Harrisburg Area Community College.
Grass was the major donor behind HACC’s Rose Lehrman Arts Center, which was named after her mother and opened in 1975. As was typical of Grass, Greenwald said, her activism didn’t end with the building’s completion, as she helped to coordinate the programming of the center in its early days.
Grass was also instrumental in the development of the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, with former Harrisburg mayor Stephen Reed telling the Central Penn Business Journal that “Lois Lehrman Grass has been right in there in that whole process,” of helping to revitalize the city with similar projects.
“She is a national role model,” Reed said in a 2011 interview. “She has been catalytic in bringing about very significant improvements to the cultural and civic sectors of this entire region. One could legitimately argue that she’s done so without parallel.”
According to Greenwald, Grass was a “true patron [of the arts] in the classical sense,” directly commissioning artwork or music from painters, sculptors or composers, in addition to supporting groups ranging from Theater Harrisburg to Market Square Concerts and the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz.
“She was able to bring a lot of influence to bear on things that she cared deeply about,” Greenwald said. “She lived in the community for a long time, and knew an awful lot of people who had considerable resources and influence, who could help make good things happen. And that’s the way in which she used her stature – it was always for the benefit of something and somebody else.”
Greenwald also noted that none of the buildings she helped fund bear her own name, and that “a lot of what she did was very, very private.”
The causes and organizations she supported went beyond central Pennsylvania, Greenwald said, with donations to such groups as the National Holocaust Museum, for which she was a founding donor. She was also a founding member of the National Museum of Woman in the Arts and a member of its National Advisory Board.
She was committed to the Jewish community both in her home region and around the world, and through her donations named the Lehrman Chapel at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg and the Rose Lehrman Wing at The Hebrew University School of Education in Jerusalem after her mother.
“[Lois] was a lifelong member of Ohev Sholom, and behind the scenes for every fundraising project that we’ve done, going back generations,” said Rabbi Peter Kessler, formerly the rabbi at Temple Ohev Sholom. “Lois was the one who said to me, and the rabbis before me, ‘let’s meet at my house, and let’s get a committee together.’ And Lois would teach everyone in attendance how to raise money. She was amazing at it.”
For Kessler, whose family is in New York City, Grass became his “Harrisburg mom” while he was at Temple Ohev Sholom. He said that her mentorship for his own son, an arts student at CASA, was symbolic of her desire to teach and nurture not just the next generation of artists, but the next generation of arts patrons.
In addition, Kessler said, the support of the Harrisburg Jewish community “meant the world to her,” as did projects in education, and particularly those focused on Holocaust education.
“If we were working on a project where we didn’t reach our goal, she would match it,” Kessler said. “Because of her mentorship and stewardship, she really helped our congregation, and many of the other Jewish organizations in the city, fundraise. That was a huge part of who she was.”
“Somebody asked me earlier today, ‘do you know how much money she gave away in her life? How many millions?’,” Martin Grass said. “I said, that’s really not important. What she would tell you is as important as how much money she has raisedyou know, for arts and culture, and health care, mental health and that sort of thing.”
Among other accolades for her philanthropy, Grass was selected for honors by the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania in 1988, awarded the inaugural Distinguished Service to the Arts in the Capital Region by Theater Harrisburg in 1989, and earned the Governor’s Award for the Arts in 1999.
In more recent years, friends said, one of her biggest passion projects was the Capital Area School for the Arts. Tim Wendling, principal and CEO of the arts charter school in Harrisburg, said that Grass “pretty much lived and breathed CASA” during his 10-year tenure thus far, and well before then as a hands-on fundraiser and board member for several years.
“She was caring and super passionate,” he said. “She had the biggest heart, especially for the kids. I think she taught people that it’s not just about giving money, and it’s not just about writing a check. It’s about committing to something that you’re passionate about, and she was passionate about the kids.”
Wendling said that Grass could be a “spitfire,” and that her guidance was instrumental for his forays into fundraising, and that “if [Lois] said she was going to do something, she would absolutely make sure it got done.”
“It will be hard to move on without her generosity and support,” Wendling said. “But I think what’s going to drive us now is to make sure that whatever we do at the school, we keep making her proud, and and find ways to move on and continue her legacy.”
In a statement, Harrisburg mayor Wanda Williams said that “our city lost one of its giant hearts today.”
“We are heartbroken in the city to hear of Lois Lehrman Grass’ passing,” Williams said. “She will be remembered in eternity the way she was embraced in life, as someone who was a tireless and selfless giver and provider. Her name can be found across the city thanks to her philanthropy, and notably, her endless work for students of the arts and the Harrisburg Jewish community.”
Grass is survived by her children Martin Grass, Roger Grass, Elizabeth Weese and their families, including 15 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren; she was predeceased by her daughter Linda Grass Shapiro, sister Barbara Weinberg and longtime companion Bowman Brown.
Funeral services will be held at 2 pm Sept. 23 at Temple Ohev Sholom, 2345 N. Front Street, Harrisburg. Burial will follow at Mount Moriah Cemetery, located at Strouse and Fritchey streets. To honor Lois’s memory, her family asked that contributions be made to any Jewish, arts or healthcare organization of your choice.
Kessler noted the upcoming Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, where tradition states that God inscribes the names of the righteous into the Book of Life for the coming year.
“If he keeps you for almost a year, it speaks to your righteousness,” he said. “That’s certainly Lois.”