Sporting a baseball cap still, the 85-year-old guy recalled the progression of his fielding positions over five decades of summer games on the Chilmark diamond.
“I played third up until I got too old, then I went to short, then to second as my arm gave out, but that took 50 years,” he says.
Most of the other players in the summer Sunday pickup games he loves so much know him by his first name only. They still call out to him when they see him at the ag fair, “Jerry, Jerry, you coming back to play?” Few know he was the reason the field has a fence now and a few other improvements as well.
Likewise he has been quietly responsible for hundreds of acres of land conservation and millions of dollars for other Island causes, from the hospital to the historical society to affordable housing, firemen’s associations to Felix Neck, Vineyard House to VCS to Vineyard Energy Project, community service and sustainable shellfishing. And Jerome Kohlberg Jr. has done it, as is his way, without one headline.
Now that he is buying the Vineyard Gazette, though, there is no keeping his name out of the newspaper.
So with his wife, Nancy, and dog, Molly, at his side on the deck of their house overlooking the Edgartown Great Pond, Mr. Kohlberg recently talked about his life on and off the Vineyard and his plans for the Gazette and its role in the community.
“I’ve never owned a newspaper and I probably won’t again,” the businessman and philanthropist said. “All I can say is I’ve been here since 1943, I’ve read every one of Henry Beetle Hough’s books and most of the writers on the Vineyard.” Raising his four children, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren over six decades of summers here, the Kohlbergs have been longtime Gazette subscribers. “We’ve kind of grown up with it,” he said.
“And it’s an outstanding paper . . . and we’ve got to keep this the kind of paper it has been: a country, sophisticated, wonderful paper on a unique Island with unique people.”
Mr. Kohlberg made his name in investment banking, first at Bear Stearns and then at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the firm he helped to form in 1976. He resigned from KKR over philosophical differences just over a decade later, as the firm that still bears his name got into larger and more controversial buyouts. Looking back, he remembers, “You could pay a lawyer enough to get any opinion you wanted, any numbers you wanted, it was getting disconnected from reality. It just wasn’t fun any more.”
According to a New York Times report in 1987, Mr. Kohlberg “announced his withdrawal to investors in the firm in a speech focused almost entirely on the decline of ethics and what he called the ‘overpowering greed that pervades our business life.’ He insisted that there must be a resurgence of high standards.”
He then formed the private equity firm Kohlberg & Company with his son James in Mount Kisco, N.Y., saying at the time, “I’ll stick with deals where reason still prevails.”
So, where’s the reason in buying a newspaper in 2010?
“This is a different kind of investment,” he said.
“It’s an investment in preserving something that’s worth preserving. Newspapers are an important part of democracy.”
Yet they are in decline everywhere, for both structural reasons — papers must compete with a profusion of new media, all vying for advertising dollars — and cyclical reasons — the depressed economy.
Without newspapers or “an awfully good substitute” which has yet to emerge, society would be in a “real mess,” he said. Thus his determination to save “one of the few gems left.”
“We think the Gazette is a very worthwhile paper, an enterprise to preserve,” he said.
He intends to hire a publisher for the paper and to let the staff do the journalism without editorial interference. “I’m not going to talk about newspaper things . . . the only place I can contribute will be in the business,” he said, adding:
“We’ve got to get more revenue . . . [and] it’s going to take an investment. My wife and I feel very strongly we should keep the broadsheet and we should keep the printing here on the Island.” Whether the black and white icon should add color printing is, he said, “up for discussion.”
He said any profit the Gazette makes will go back into the newspaper. “I’m not going to take a nickel, and I hope we can contribute to some of the things on the Vineyard,” he said.
He is clearly relishing the prospect. Asked when he is happiest, Mr. Kohlberg paused for some time and said, “I think when we are digging into something or doing something and it takes a lot of analyzing, analysis and working with people, and then seeing it through all the pitfalls and problems that sometimes come up and working all those through and then seeing the thing turn out well. Seeing many people benefitting from it.
“I’ve always felt very good about the management of the companies we were involved with, that [the people involved] become successful, wealthy and then go on to other things and continue to have great lives, and I am gratified by that.”
Jerome Kohlberg grew up in Westchester, N.Y. “We got through the depression, I went to public schools in New Rochelle. I went to Swarthmore as a 17-year-old in 1943, and that summer I came to the Vineyard to visit my aunt and uncle, who had just taken a house in Menemsha and it was a very restful thing for me before going back to college and into the Navy,” he said.
He reminisces about how, many years later, Dave Flanders helped the couple find land in Chilmark, where Emmett Carroll built their house. “Dave Flanders took me out in the field and we located where we would put it, and we got poison ivy,” he recalled with a smile.
Some 20 years ago they sold that home and moved to their Pohogonot home on the Edgartown Great Pond, today powered by a windmill. From here, his home in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and a home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., Mr. Kohlberg has been busy since leaving active corporate life. He’s been leading the Kohlberg Foundation, contributing more than $500 million over the past decade alone. Meanwhile he’s spearheading improvements in educational benefits for American servicemen and women, he’s long been active in campaign finance reform, and lately he’s been seeking solutions for people struggling to stay in their homes in the ongoing mortgage crisis.
As for the GI Bill, Mr. Kohlberg recalled: “I was 17 when I signed up in the Navy . . . I went to Swarthmore for a short time, I went to Harvard Business School, I got my law school education, all on the GI Bill, and we got a stipend to live.”
In recent years, the education offered to GIs coming out of the war has diminished greatly. “I saw what was happening, I got active and angry at how mean and small [were the benefits] our servicemen were getting. So we did two things. We petitioned Congress . . . and also started some scholarships of our own. I forget how many scholarships we’ve given out, maybe 140 or so ourselves.
“I visited with a couple of senators, three or four senators all of whom had had the GI bill the same as myself. And they were opposed on the grounds that the country couldn’t afford it. And I said, that’s a helluva thing.
“I first talked to Colin Powell, he was against the GI Bill along with his President, Bush, who was against it because the country couldn’t afford it, and also the military was against it because they felt it would hurt re-enlistment.”
Mr. Kohlberg arranged a discussion at General Powell’s alma mater, the City College of New York in Harlem, where some of the GIs supported by the Kohlberg Foundation scholarships would be speaking, and invited the former Secretary of State to attend. “By the time he made his speech at 11 o’clock after some of the GIs had talked . . . Powell came out with a wonderful speech for the GI bill. Next day it was in all the papers: General comes out against his President and against the military, for the GI Bill.
“Within two weeks we had 76 senators and we got the thing done.”
Mr. Kohlberg is less pleased with the results of his 20-year effort to help reform how American political campaigns are financed. “We did well,” he said wistfully. “Then it was nipped at each end and got frittered away. Finally, I don’t know if it’s the final blow or what, but the case in the Supreme Court [Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission] which permitted unions and corporations to spend as much money as they want is just a terrible blow.”
He’s advocating for new legislation to restore some limits. Maybe even a Constitutional amendment.
In New York, where he and his wife raise free-range livestock and fish on their farm, with some of the produce supporting Mrs. Kohlberg’s pioneering organic restaurant, The Flying Pig, he’s also working on the mortgage crisis. “The government has a program where they put up $1,500 for redoing the mortgage, but it’s been very difficult because the banks really don’t want to have to write these mortgages and because of the bureaucracy of both the banks and the government.
“So far we’re working with Chase Bank, the Bank of America and maybe the Wells Fargo Bank, to focus on some mortgages which the banks would do, whereby they’ll step down, the mortgage will be extended, and the rate will come way down.
“By the end of the year we hope to maybe get a couple of hundred mortgages refinanced with people who can stay in their homes, and what I want to do is have that as a poster-boy project to show how people like myself can work with a bank and get it done. But it’s awfully hard going.”
He’s also talking to Vineyard bankers about helping to keep people in their homes. “I think we can do a lot . . . with people here on the Vineyard and make a dent in this housing problem hopefully.”
Does he gravitate to the tough, complex problems? “Well, to the hardest problems which at least appear to me to need somebody that has some drive, [who can] stake out something that can be done. I think too many projects are pie-in-the-sky and get tangled in somebody’s underwear, the government’s or somebody else’s, and require huge amounts of money.
“For me it revolves around people helping people,” he said.
“And it doesn’t have to be money. We’ve helped a lot of people just by being there. Helping them get through the process that gets so hard, whether it’s getting into college or understanding something else, so it’s not just money. I remember very well when I was needing help as a young man and didn’t get it from people that I felt should have helped so I think I’ve tried to make up for that, and my kids have too.”
Asked what he hopes he has passed on to his children, he answered, “I think the important thing is to accept challenge and enjoy challenge and to be willing to fail and take chances. Because everything I’ve done . . . there’s a polite phrase for it and a not-so-polite phrase for it, it’s going against the wind. It’s important to sail against the wind when you really believe it and take chances.
“I did that when my father was against my going to law school. My father was against our getting married so early,” he says with a loving look at Nancy, whom he calls his biggest luxury. He speaks with fatherly pride of his sons’ businesses — James, whose private equity firm has branched out into film and publishing, and Andrew, who runs retirement communities — and the involvement of them and his daughters, who live in Chilmark and Edgartown, in philanthropic ventures, including mentorships on the Vineyard.
“My father was against my leaving the law and going into Wall Street, he was against my forming a firm. The point is, I like challenges and I think it’s important to thrive on new things and meet the challenges, and enjoy working through, and working with people.”
Starting right here, with the Vineyard Gazette.
“We want to enable the Gazette to take the same place that it’s occupied for . . . 164 years.
“I don’t know what life would be without The New York Times. I feel the same way about the Vineyard Gazette,” Mr. Kohlberg said. “If you’re here on the Vineyard, I think it’s very important.”