Opinion: The Pennsylvania Society is needed – now, more than ever

Two former governors weigh in on the essential role the annual weekend plays in the state’s political ecosystem.

Former Gos. Ed Rendell, L, and Tom Ridge

Former Gos. Ed Rendell, L, and Tom Ridge University of Pittsburgh

One of us is a Democrat from Philadelphia; the other, a Republican from Erie. Aside from both of us having had the privilege to serve as twice-elected governors from Pennsylvania, it wouldn’t seem we have much else in common.

Certainly, one also wouldn’t think we have much in common with legendary children’s TV host Fred Rogers, or astronaut Guy Bluford, or filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. But we do! We are all proud Pennsylvanians who have been recognized for our contributions to the commonwealth we all love. It is always special when a group chooses to honor you, but when that honor comes from fellow Pennsylvanians, it means that much more.

So it will be next week for Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer and Joseph Neubauer, two remarkable Philadelphians who will receive the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement at The Pennsylvania Society’s 125th Annual Dinner in New York. Think of that for a moment: For 125 years, PA Society has brought its members and friends together to celebrate and honor Pennsylvania’s leadership in the economic, cultural and industrial life of our nation. The Society is even older than us!

The Neubauers are perfect examples of Pennsylvanians worth celebrating. Their philanthropy makes the Keystone State a better place to live, work and play. From improving K-12 urban education and reducing gun violence to investing in valuable research on U.S. Jewry and creating a permanent, public home to one of the great art collections in the world at the Barnes, their legacy is truly remarkable. The best thing about the Neubauers is that they are not done yet. The Calder Museum, a project we started when one of us was governor and the other mayor of Philadelphia, was brought to fruition only by the indefatigable leadership and drive of our honorees – and it will be a fitting tribute to their dedication and caring for Philadelphia.

Their names soon will join other Pennsylvania luminaries as Gold Medal recipients like Dr. Gertrude Barber, honored for her work on behalf of disabled children; novelist James Michener, for his vast literary contributions; sportsman and entrepreneur Arnold Palmer; and Dr. Ala Stanford, for her tireless work to keep underserved populations in Philadelphia healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. As you can imagine, when you’re 125 years old, the list is long and impressive. 

Some have questioned whether an organization like The Pennsylvania Society is still relevant all these years later. Is it too exclusive? And are attendees still in touch with today’s challenges? It is our belief that the need for the society – and its focus on community, civility and charity – has never been greater.

Given our unique perspectives as statewide elected public servants, we have personally experienced and witnessed the fractures in the way Pennsylvanians interact with one another. We have become the “purplest” of all purple states, greatly divided in our politics. The Pennsylvania Society provides a “time-out” from that divisiveness – an opportunity to come together not as political or business adversaries, but as Pennsylvanians – united in friendship and fellowship, and in agreement that putting Pennsylvania first is what matters most.

Civility will always be relevant – and during PA Society Weekend, it is expected. And because the society’s leadership has made a concerted effort in recent years to invite more diversity into its membership, along with a focus on recruiting members under 35, there is no question that those who attend are not only aware of today’s challenges; they are part of the solution.

Today’s Pennsylvania Society is a far cry from its reputation as a place where backroom deals get done by a handful of power brokers. Quite honestly, we’re not sure that reputation was ever founded. Nonetheless, efforts by recent leaders such as Roger Richards, Andrew Sordoni and Thomas Hagen helped move the organization into the 21st century. We are glad to see those three are being honored with a special award over the weekend.   

When the founder of The Pennsylvania Society, a Philadelphian named Barr Ferree, hosted the very first dinner in 1899 along with 55 fellow Pennsylvanians, he certainly could not have imagined it would have had such staying power. But we are glad that it has, and we encourage all Pennsylvanians to learn more about the Society and consider becoming a member. There is much to celebrate about our Keystone State.

Republican Tom Ridge was Pennsylvania’s 43rd governor. Democrat Ed Rendell was Pennsylvania’s 45th governor. Both are recipients of The Pennsylvania Society’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement.

City & State welcomes op-ed submissions on subjects related to politics, policy and the professionals who engage in both. To submit an op-ed for consideration, please email gsalisbury@cityandstatepa.com.

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