Interviews & Profiles

‘Civil discourse is expected’: Elizabeth Preate Havey discusses the Pennsylvania Society’s 125th anniversary

The organization’s president discusses how its annual New York dinner is needed now more than ever as a forum for debate.

Elizabeth Preate Havey

Elizabeth Preate Havey The Pennsylvania Society

Starting today, in the heart of Manhattan, The Pennsylvania Society will once again meet for a weekend of celebration and conversation in the New York Hilton Midtown, continuing a tradition of bringing together leaders from business, politics and advocacy who have a special connection to the Keystone State. 

The annual event has featured current and former governors, welcomed U.S. presidents and honored philanthropists. This year’s annual dinner – which will be on Saturday, Dec. 2 – will include the presentation of the first-ever “Barr Ferree Award” in honor of the Society’s 125th anniversary – as well as the organization’s annual Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement. 

City & State spoke with Elizabeth Preate Havey, president of The Pennsylvania Society, about this year’s event and what Pennsylvanians should know about the yearly event. 

There’s always been some intrigue, some mystique to the Pennsylvania Society. What should Pennsylvanians know about the weekend?

For me, the Society has really been impactful in my life because it’s provided this community of great individuals from all across Pennsylvania, of all different career backgrounds and political backgrounds that I would not have otherwise been able to get to know. This particular dinner weekend is so special. It provides this opportunity and this festive, exciting environment to have civil discourse, to make friends and to break bread with people who may otherwise be competitors in life. Especially during this time, next year with the U.S. presidential (election) – it’s going to be a tough year for a lot of Americans, politically. So, it’s great to know that we’re going to have this opportunity to be with people and have civil, fun, and educational conversations that we wouldn’t have if we didn’t make this trek to New York.

You mentioned the dinner – what else will be going on?

The weekend really starts on Thursday. Individuals and businesses and politicians have events all weekend long. I’ve been going to a number of them every year – for example, the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association seminar. The PMA seminar is a hallmark of the Pennsylvania Society weekend. We bring in our political leaders, like the governor –  and I believe Sen. Casey will be there this year – and they talk to us about issues that are relevant right now. There’s a diverse group of people in the audience with different political views and it’s just an opportunity to learn from these politicians about what their priorities are and what we need to do in Pennsylvania. That’s, to me, a hallmark event. Invitation only, but one that everybody's always trying to get into. David Taylor has done a really nice job continuing the event after the death of his predecessor.

We have dinners on Friday night, as well as cocktail receptions. This year, we’re having a special one-time award for our 125th anniversary called the Barr Ferree Award. I know the name sounds a little strange, but Barr Ferree founded the society in 1899. He graduated from an iconic Philadelphia high school – Central High School – and he went to the University of Pennsylvania. He had a long and distinguished career as a manager and owner of the Leonard Scott Publication Company in New York. He missed his friends in Pennsylvania and so he created this dinner, once a year, for people similarly situated as him – transplants to New York who loved Pennsylvania. We decided, given that it is our 125th anniversary, we would recognize three of our past presidents who were incredibly impactful over the last 25 years for the society. Thomas Hagen, Roger Richards and Andrew Sordoni. They all prioritized civility and civil discourse, which really continues to be the hallmark of the Pennsylvania Society. As I said, it’s more important than ever.

Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to this year?

Well, I always love and look forward to the dinner. That’s the culmination of a hectic and exciting weekend. I love the format that’s new to the Hilton, where we have a fantastic band – the dinner is a bit shorter, and afterward, the doors open to wonderful desserts and a band for dancing. Instead of breaking up and going to all sorts of parties, people really stay and dance the night away together. It is, in my view, the best event of the weekend.

Who are some of the big names Pennsylvania Society has drawn over the course of its history?

Some of the honorees are past presidents of the United States. We honored Winston Churchill at one point. It’s really an international who’s who. We’ve had celebrities like M. Night Shyamalan providing their perspectives, top-notch business owners and people like the Neubauers, who we’re honoring this year.

We always have the legislative leaders. Other than Gov. Wolf, governors have always participated in the dinner. Sen. Casey and Sen. Toomey always participated. Sen. Fetterman doesn’t go – that’s not unexpected. Last year was really exciting: I’m the first female president; we had the first female Senate president, the first Black female leader in the House and the first female chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court there. It was maybe the first time that we’ve had all of these first females with everybody in the audience.

Over the years, there has been some pushback to holding the Pennsylvania Society in New York. Do you have any response to that?

New York makes this a really special weekend. There’s no place like New York during the holiday season. It’s so exciting and I think it gives people a fresh place. It provides them an opportunity to get out of the busyness of their daily life or the stress of their daily life. 

I’m a lawyer in a big firm in Philadelphia – constantly negotiating and pushing back. This takes you out of that tense atmosphere, puts you in an exciting holiday location and opens you up to have this friendship-building weekend, this environment where civil discourse is expected and applauded. The politicians in Harrisburg, who are battling every day … to get them to New York where they can see their opposition in a friendly party atmosphere is wonderful for everybody – and it’s the same for competitors and business. It needs to stay in New York. It elevates the weekend and really brings a freshness and an openness that we wouldn’t otherwise have if we keep it in the environment where we are all in every day.