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Reginald F. Lewis Legacy Continues To Inspire

Originally Posted: June 15, 2009

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Honoree former fighter pilot Lt. Col. Lee A. Archer, Jr., a Tuskegee Airman during WWII, with two of his four children, Ina Diane and Roy Archer.

East Hampton - The life and legacy of the late Reginald F. Lewis was celebrated in East Hampton on a perfect Saturday afternoon in June, as friends, family, colleagues and those that he inspired gathered at his ocean front estate to raise funds in support of his foundation and praise the man that so fundamentally affected the lives and attitude of the nation regarding the black entrepreneurial spirit.

Fundamentally inspired by the early foundation of a loving and supportive family, Lewis' mother, Carolyn Fuggett, commented on the celebration of her son's legacy. "He certainly left an imprint and the thing we are celebrating today is - 'Let your work speak for you.' He worked 15 years for others before he did his first deal, and through that here we are today with his family carrying on his legacy. We feel very pleased and proud to celebrate his legacy and come together as people. We have the ocean, the salt air and we have much joy in our lives."

Born in a self-described "semi-tough" neighborhood in Baltimore, MD, confidence and self-determination were inherent aspects of his personality from the beginning, as Lewis excelled both academically and athletically in high school. Upon losing his football scholarship after a first year injury at Virgina State University, he worked two jobs to keep himself in college. In 1965, after attending a Rockefeller Foundation sponsored Harvard University summer program to introduce African-American students to general legal studies in his senior year, Lewis became the only person in the history of the prestigious law school to be admitted without ever submitting an application. Lewis so profoundly impressed Prof. Frank Sanders that he simply reserved the student a spot in the law school class of 1968. Lewis arrived in Cambridge with only $50 in his pocket.

Honoree R. Donahue Peebles with Nassau County Clerk candidate Carrie Solages.

Upon graduation in 1968, he joined a prestigious Manhattan law firm, and within two years established the first African-American firm on Wall Street, Lewis and Clarkson, specializing in corporate law and structured investments in minority-owned businesses, along with serving corporate multinationals, including General Foods.

As history tells it, a desire to "do the deal myself" motivated Lewis to start the TLC Group, whose first $22.5 million leverage buyout, resurrection and sale of the failing McCall Pattern Corp., as reported by the New York Times, realized his company a 90-1 return on investment. Following fast on the heels of that deal in 1987, Lewis completed a deal for the $985 million buyout of Beatrice Foods International, at the time the largest ever buyout of overseas assets by an American company. Lewis maintains the distinction of being the first African-American to build a billion dollar company, which he did literally from scratch.

The always flamboyant and eloquent Don King was in attendance and described the importance of the event and Lewis' place in American financial history, "It is very important because this is a pioneer effort by Reggie, celebrating his victory of breaking into Wall Street and opening up the doors. Reggie is true Americana!"

His entrepreneurial spirit was equally matched by his philanthropic commitments. In the same year of the Beatrice acquisition, Lewis established his charitable foundation, which funded grants of $10 million to various non-profits and other organizations like Howard University, a school he never attended. In 1992, he donated $3 million to his Harvard Law School alma mater, at the time the largest grant ever given to the school, to establish a fellowship to teach minority lawyers how to become law professors.

Reggis Lewis' devoted wife, Loida Nicolas Lews, receiving a standing ovation from the attendees.

Published posthumously, Lewis' book, "Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun?" inspired entrepreneurs of every race and gave them the tools to succeed. One of the many inspired was Carrie Solages, a young African-American lawyer who is running for Nassau County Clerk on the Democratic line. "I read his book before I started college at Georgetown. His book inspired me to never let my background put a chip on my shoulder, just move forward, think positive and build on the success not just of my family, but the many people that came before me," Solages recounted. Reginald Lewis never used race as an avenue or an excuse, and always urged others to do the same.

We asked former NYC Mayor David Dinkins to comment on the impact of Lewis' untimely death in 1993. "One of the best friends I have ever had was Reginald Lewis. When I think how young he died, at age 50, it provokes a profound sadness. My wife Joyce and I have a son that is 55, so you can appreciate how young that sounds to me. Reg was a dear friend to me and any cause promoting him and the inclusive vision in which he believed, is a good one. Reg was magnificent!"

Succumbing to brain cancer, Lewis' most passionate philanthropic dream was not realized in his lifetime. During his illness he expressed a desire to support an African-American cultural museum. Thanks to his foundation and the unwavering commitment of his wife, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the preservation of his philanthropic legacy was secured with a $5 million endowment grant for the Reginald F. Lewis Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture in Baltimore, named in his honor.

Reginald Lewis' mother, Carolyn Fuggett, with "Choc'late Soldiers From The USA" filmmakers Sonny Izon and Gregory Cooke.

The event in East Hampton endeavored to raise $1 million in matching funds to complement the $1 million challenge donation to the museum by the Eddie C. and S. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation. Mrs. Lewis was thrilled by the turnout, "I am exhilarated! That is what you feel when you work hard and then you let things fall as they will, because you have done your best and God will do the rest. What I like best about this event is that everyone is happy, everyone is friendly, there is a feeling of achievement in helping a good cause."

To imagine that the event did not reach its goal is unfathomable, as the turnout was so obviously significant. In a difficult economy, if the cause is right, people find a way. As Kevin McGovern, chairman of The Water Initiative, explained, "We all need to focus on the charities that mean the most to us. Maybe we can't participate in all the charitable events we'd like to, but each one of us needs to find a way to support the ones that mean the most to us. We need to make sure the ones that make an impact, the ones that are important to us, like this one, can sustain themselves and survive."

Former NYC Mayor David Dinkins with his wife Joyce.

After the cocktail party at the oceanfront estate, guests moved down to the great lawn for the gala luncheon and awards reception. This year's honorees were two men whose impact on American business and culture is as palpable as the man being celebrated. In fact, it could be said that without the contribution of one of them, the America we know today might not even exist. Retired Lt. Col. Lee A. Archer, Jr. was one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. This year, marking the 65th anniversary of D-Day, Archer has added to his long list of awards and accomplishments the honor of being named the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture Museum Millennium Award Member. Archer is a businessman, philanthropist and recipient of the French Legion of Honor, bestowed upon him by the French government during the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984.

Archer commented on the legacy of the seminal African-American warriors that fought for America during WWII, never losing a bomber during their escort missions. "The first real integration in American history was the Tuskegee Airmen, long before the marches of the civil rights movement. The fact that we were successful made a significant change." A life-long friend of Reggie Lewis, Archer had just returned from Prague where is he serving as one of the technical advisers on an upcoming George Lucas film that includes some of the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Chairman of the Water Initiative, Kevin McGovern.

The afternoon's other honoree was one of the nation's most successful entrepreneurs and real estate developers. Author of "The Peebles Principles," R. Donahue Peebles received the Reginald F. Lewis Award. CEO of the nation's largest African-American real estate development companies, The Peebles Corporation, he was one of the earliest supporters of President Barack Obama and serves on the National Finance Committee. We caught up with Peebles and asked him to comment on the impact of Lewis on his life and career, "I knew of him, but unfortunately never had the honor of meeting him. I read his book and drew wisdom from it to go into business for myself and recognized from his example that we live in a country of limitless opportunities for entrepreneurs and that there is no excuse not to succeed. I learned that from reading his book. Over the years I got the chance to meet Loida and her family and admire very much what they have been doing in his memory. The Lewis family sets such a great example of what it means to carry on a legacy. Loida is the best example I know of a true partnership in marriage, after his death she was the one that introduced most of this country to Reginald Lewis. Making sure that even today his goals and ideals continue."

There is an extraordinary tale of a man's rise to fame and fortune from the most modest of origins. He embraced the opportunity of the American Dream and refused to let the color of his skin, or a perceived lack of privilege and pedigree prevent the realization of his personal potential. Former Mayor Dinkins summed it up best when he commented on Lewis' death in 1993, "Reginald Lewis accomplished more in half a century than most of us could ever deem imaginable. And his brilliant career was matched always by a warm and generous heart. It is said that service to others is the rent we pay on earth. Reg Lewis departed us paid in full."

To learn more about this extraordinary man and his work go to www.reginaldflewis.com.

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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