The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 4, 2011

Weis family matriarch, philanthropist Janet C. Weis dies at age 91

By Joseph Deinlein
The Daily Item

— LEWISBURG — Janet C. Weis, a matriarch of the family that built Weis Markets Inc. and a philanthropist whose generosity can be seen throughout the Central Susquehanna Valley, died Monday evening. She was 91.

She was the widow of Weis Markets Chairman Sigfried Weis, who died in 1995. Together, they gave millions of dollars for the advancement of education, medicine and the arts throughout the area.

Gary Sojka, Bucknell University’s former president and close friend of Weis, said he saw her Sunday.

“She was just a lovely lady,” he said.

He began trying to rattle off the many charitable contributions for which she was responsible that helped not only his university, but also the community in general.

There were the obvious things, such as the Weis Center for Performing Arts at Bucknell, or Geisinger Medical Center’s Janet Weis Children’s Hospital, or the Janet C. Weis and Sigfried Weis Research Center at Geisinger.

But there also was her work with the Children’s Miracle Network, the Janet Weis Jazz Series, the Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters and numerous other activities that did not necessarily bear her name.

“Philanthropy is what it was about for her,” Sojka said. “(Janet and Sigfried Weis) were people who could be generous, but they were also intelligent philanthropists, they knew what they were giving to.

“I hope I’m not forgetting something important. And with a person like Janet, who did so much, that’s possible.”

A love of life

Friends called Weis a private and family-oriented person, considerate of others and interested in the common good.

Steve Lindenmuth, a friend for 30 years, joined Sojka and family members during the visit Sunday afternoon.

“She was still witty and still interjecting things into the conversation,” he said. “She was pretty good up to the end.”

Sojka called her wit “very sharp” with a humorous tone.

“She was very, very funny,” he said. “She didn’t want to do it as a stand-up comic. It was almost like an under-her-breath remark to someone. It was a matter of being very clever and witty.”

Friend Anna Holzberger met the Weises about 35 years ago. Holzberger’s husband taught English at Bucknell and the two met Janet and Sigfried at a dinner party and became close friends.

“She was a charming hostess,” Holzberger said. “She had a good sense of humor and was very down to earth. You never had that feeling that she was a very well taken care of woman.”

But it was her focus on literature and the arts her friends recalled most.

She loved the written word, they said. She penned several books and newspaper columns. The Fellow in Contemporary Letters at Bucknell named in her honor, set up through the Degenstein Foundation, brought to the area some of the world’s most famous and respected authors.

Her love of jazz music led to the creation of a weekly concert series named in her honor. Lindenmuth said it became harder for her to visit New York and hear jazz, so her daughter, Susan, helped create the series to bring the jazz to her.

“And we all benefitted,” Lindenmuth said.

Sojka recalled her sitting in the arts center named for her in-laws on Bucknell’s campus listening to the music.

“It was so wonderful to go to one of those concerts with her,” he said. “And sometimes you could see her tapping her foot to the tunes she knew.”

Family business

Janet Weis was connected to Weis Markets through her husband.

The company’s roots can be traced to her husband’s grandfather, Austrian immigrant Sigfried Weis, who was born in 1846.

In the late 1800s, he started S. Weis and Sons General Store in Selinsgrove. He and his wife, Ella, had sons Harry and Sigmund, who opened Weis Pure Food Stores in 1912 in Sunbury.

Harry’s son, Robert F. Weis, and Sigmund’s son, Sigfried (Janet’s husband), ran things until Sigfried’s death in 1995.

During her husband’s term as president of Weis Markets, the company went public and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The Sunbury-based corporation grew to more than 149 stores with more than 16,000 employees under his leadership. He eventually retired as chairman of the board.

Robert Weis, who is now the company’s chairman,  said,“We extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to Janet Weis’s family. She will always be remembered as a leader in our community and a generous supporter of many good causes.”

Condolences, remembrances

Across the area, organizations that benefited from Weis’ philanthropy offered condolences and remembrances.

“Janet firmly believed in quality education and quality health care,” said Susquehanna University President L. Jay Lemons. “Her bright smile and personal warmth will be greatly missed. She and her late husband, Sigfried, played an important role in helping so many Susquehanna Valley institutions and the people they serve.”

Perhaps she and her husband’s most obvious educational connections were to Bucknell, where both spent time on the board of directors and donated time and money.

In fact, Janet Weis was awarded the Stephen W. Taylor Medal — Bucknell’s highest honor — in 2003 and an honorary degree in 2008.

“It’s not just about philanthropy,” said current Bucknell President John Bravman, “but it’s about leadership and commitment, giving back to the university and to medicine through Geisinger.”

“Some people have the will and some people have the means,” he continued. “(The Weises) had both, which is a very rare thing, and it touched the lives of many thousands of people.”

Skip Wieder, who was Geisinger’s senior vice president for development, worked for many years with Sigfried and Janet Weis.

“I first met them in the 1980s — I don’t recall exactly when — but they wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. Janet got very interested in the children’s hospital, which at the time was little more than a hospital wing. They both felt a need, almost an obligation, to do something special for the people in the region and they did. Now it’s a world-class children’s hospital.”

Wieder worked with Janet Weis professionally, and then when he retired a few years ago, they carried on as casual friends. “She was a delightful, good person. Low key. Janet didn’t want to be in the spotlight. If you asked me to use two words to describe her, I’d say, ‘She cared.’ ”

Dr. Glenn Steele Jr., president and CEO of Geisinger Health System, said the region “lost one of its true champions.”

“Over the years, her philanthropic support and personal involvement have advanced health care for children and provided the means for medical research, in addition to many other worthy causes,” he said. “Her legacy will live on in the thousands of area children who receive the most advanced and compassionate care at the nation’s first rural children’s hospital. The Geisinger family is truly saddened by her passing and we extend our thoughts and prayers to the Weis family.”

Fallen pillars

Lewisburg Mayor Judy Wagner said the community lost two other pillars within the past month.

John F. Zeller III, former vice president for administration and finance and general counsel of Bucknell, died Dec. 8. The Honorable James F. McClure Jr., a federal judge for the U.S. Middle District and former district attorney and judge for Union County, died Dec. 17.

“She was the last of a trilogy of people the likes of whom we likely won’t see again,” Wagner said. “They were people who really valued their community and gave back. That is rare, and in our current economy, we’re likely to see less of.”