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Powerbook: Lois Lehrman Grass

Arts and entertainment

Lois Lehrman Grass and Hal McInnes, right, retired chairman and CEO of former Amp Inc., collaborated on many civic projects, including the creation of Harrisburg's Whitaker Center for the Science and the Arts. Photo/Amy Spangler

In former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed’s assessment, Lois Lehrman Grass’ activism on behalf of civic causes over the past half-century puts her in a class by herself.

“She is a national role model,” he said. “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.”

“She’s tireless,” said Cheryl Giles-Rudawski, principal of the Capital Area School for the Arts, known as CASA, one of the many projects with which Grass remains intimately involved.

Grass describes her work in understated terms.

“I’m a community person,” she said. “It’s not about me.”

Grass grew up in Harrisburg in the 1930s and 1940s. Her father ran a successful family grocery business. Her husband, Alex, was an attorney who came to work in the business. He went on to found the Rite Aid Corp. drugstore chain in the early 1960s; it is now the third-largest in the country.

Lois Lehrman Grass’ early volunteering efforts focused in social services. She helped start Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg, and maintains her involvement. A longtime Red Cross volunteer, she was the second woman to chair the local chapter.

In 1962, she helped found the Aurora Club, an organization to help mentally disabled patients discharged during the “deinstitutionalization” wave of the 1960s; the club evolved into Aurora
Social Rehabilitation Services
.

She was good friends with the civic backers of Harrisburg Area Community College, Pennsylvania’s first community college, founded in 1964. Knowing her commitment to arts in education, they turned to her when HACC needed an arts center.

“We need an arts center. Why don’t you build one in memory of your mother?” she recalled them asking.

The Rose Lehrman Arts Center opened in 1975. It houses a 379-seat auditorium, an art gallery and studios and equipment for the school’s music, art and drama departments. Adjacent is the Rose Garden Plaza, planted in honor of Grass’ mother, used for receptions and open-air events.

“I have my hands in it weekly,” Grass said of the center’s operations.

Grass organized a party for recently inaugurated HACC President John “Ski” Sygielski at her house soon after he arrived so he could meet the key members of Harrisburg’s arts community.

“It was a great evening,” he said. “I was just overwhelmed with the number of people who showed up. I learned so much.”

“She has been very generous in her contributions to the college,” he said.

Grass has been equally tireless in her support for CASA, principal Giles-Rudawski said. She played a leading role in establishing the school in its quarters at Strawberry Square, and recently has been helping underwrite student scholarships.

The participating districts are supposed to pay the $5,000 annual tuition, but more and more are strapped for funds and are withdrawing those commitments.

Grass bemoans the lack of support for arts education in public schools. Arts education is vital for students, yet it’s always the first thing to get cut, she said.

Grass was intimately involved in founding Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, which she calls “the nucleus for all the good things that have happened for this city since 1999,” the year it opened. It is the largest complex of its kind in central Pennsylvania.

She recalled then-Mayor Reed calling her and half a dozen other founders into his office to give them $4 million in seed money.

“You all go get started and make it work,” she recalled him saying. The group went on to raise more than
$50 million.

Reed said his goal with civic projects was never just to build buildings, but to develop ongoing institutional leadership capacity in the community.

“Lois Lehrman Grass has been right in there in that whole process,” he said.

Those who know Grass well uniformly describe her as generous, passionate — and sharp.

“She’s not a person who suffers nonsense and wasting time,” Reed said. “She will tune you out fast if she believes that she’s being subjected to a snow job.”

“She’s forthright in her views, but very supportive, too,” said Giles-Rudawski. “She walks the talk. She works as hard as anyone.”

Grass remembers Harrisburg’s ups and downs, its bustling glory days in the 1950s and the nadir of the mid-1970s after the floods of Hurricane Agnes, when virtually the whole downtown was boarded up.

She’s philosophical about the city’s current financial and political troubles, saying she’s confident “we’ll muddle through.”

These days, more and more she
works as a collaborator, introducing people to each other, people who can help each other for the good of the community.

“I know who to call,” she said. “If someone wants to know something, they say ‘Call Lois.’ If I don’t know it, I find out who does.”

“That’s how I see myself at this stage of life,” she said.

About Grass

Age: 80

Position: Longtime Harrisburg
civic volunteer

Impact: She has been a driving force behind establishing and maintaining many of the most prominent cultural institutions in the Harrisburg area, including the Rose Lehrman Arts Center, the Whitaker Center and the Capital Area School for the Arts. In addition, she devotes energy to many social service and Jewish cultural organizations.

Tim Stuhldreher

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