Reginald F. Lewis said he didn't like to be called an African-American success story, because such a description was a label that drew a limited picture of the person.
But that description was an integral part of the story of the Baltimore native -- a lawyer, financier and philanthropist who headed the billion-dollar TLC Beatrice International Holdings, the nation's largest black-owned business.
Mr. Lewis, 50, a onetime star athlete at Dunbar High School, died yesterday in a New York City hospital. A company statement said the cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage, secondary to brain cancer. The illness had been divulged late Monday by TLC Beatrice, which reported that Mr. Lewis was in a coma.
Only a week before his death, the company said, Mr. Lewis had established an office of the chairman headed by his half-brother, Jean S. Fugett Jr., a lawyer and former professional football player from Baltimore, to take over day-to-day management.
Mr. Lewis, who had homes in New York and Paris, had been chairman and chief executive officer of TLC Beatrice since he led a group that in 1987 bought the food processing and distribution company from Beatrice International in a $985 million leveraged buyout.
Last year, Forbes magazine named Mr. Lewis among the 400 richest Americans with a net worth estimated at $400 million. However, Mr. Lewis was not a well-known figure in Baltimore because most of his career was spent in New York and European capitals, and he did not seek publicity.
But in recent years, because of his philanthropy, the name and story of Reginald Lewis had become more widely known in Baltimore -- the city where, as a working-class teen, he obtained his first job, delivering the Afro-American newspaper for $15 a week.
For a 1991 Sun Magazine article, longtime friend Mathias J. DeVito, chairman and chief executive officer of the Rouse Co., described Mr. Lewis' journey from West Baltimore to the world stage as "probably the most important African-American success story in America."
Mr. Lewis grew up in the community of Rosemont with five half-siblings. His mother was a postal worker and his stepfather a teacher. His parents divorced when he was 6, but he saw his father regularly.
For several years, he and his mother lived with his grandparents, who taught him "to always do your best and not worry about the result," Mr. Lewis said in an interview for the 1991 magazine story.
Thanks to his grandfather, Mr. Lewis acquired a taste for the finer things in life. A well-known maitre d' at private clubs in
Baltimore, his grandfather would regale him with stories of being Paris during World War I, cultivating in his grandson an enduring love of French food and culture.
At Dunbar, Mr. Lewis was captain of the football, baseball and basketball teams, and was frequently the first out to practice and the last to leave. Friends said he was the most competitive person they ever knew -- and he carried that spirit in the classroom asa well.
After his graduation from Dunbar, Mr. Lewis earned his undergraduate degree in 1965 from Virginia State University where he also played football.
Mr. Lewis said he considered a baseball career, but his hopes were dimmed by a shoulder injury "and the low outside curveball."
Instead, he attended Harvard Law School on a scholarship and interned one summer at the Baltimore law firm of Piper & Marbury -- where Mr. DeVito, then a partner, recognized the budding lawyer's potential and urged him to "go for it big. Go to New York."
After getting his law degree, Mr. Lewis joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York.
In 1973, he set out on his own to found the Wall Street firm that became Lewis & Clarkson, specializing in venture capital and corporate law. He worked 15-hour days, learning what made and broke a company and eventually attracting such big-league clients as Aetna and General Foods.
Mr. Lewis created an investment firm, TLC (for the Lewis Company), in 1983, and a year later closed his first major deal -- acquiring the McCall Pattern Co., one of the nation's oldest home-sewing concerns, from Esmark Inc. for just $1 million in cash and $23.5 million in debt, and leading it to the two most profitable years in its history.
In 1987, TLC Group sold McCall to a British textile company for $95 million.
Immediately, Mr. Lewis embarked on the transaction that would take him to the top of the business world -- the acquisition of Beatrice International.
Mr. Lewis moved quickly to reduce the debt and reposition the company, selling off many of its non-European operations and investing heavily in the remaining core group. Sales grew, despite a downsized operation, from $1.02 billion in 1988 to $1.54 billion in 1991.
Through a foundation created in his name, Mr. Lewis donated about $10 million to a long list of charitable, educational, medical, artistic and civil rights institutions -- from Baltimore to abroad.
Locally, his beneficiaries included Morgan State University, the Our Daily Bread downtown soup kitchen and St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore.
His $3 million donation to Harvard Law School in 1991 was the largest individual donation in the school's history, and was used to fund the Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center.
Mr. Lewis is survived by his wife, the former Loida Nicolas, and two daughters, Leslie, 20, and Christina, 13. In the Baltimore area, survivors include his mother and stepfather, Carolyn C. and Jean S. Fugett Sr.; two sisters, Rosalyn T. Fugett Wiley and Sharon M. Fugett; and two other brothers, Anthony S. Fugett and Joseph M. Fugett.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced. The family suggested donations to the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, 9 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019.