Reginald Lewis, the Baltimore native and former Dunbar High School quarterback who died Tuesday of brain cancer at age 50, was a lawyer, entrepreneur, self-made millionaire and philanthropist. His acquisition of the Beatrice Company's international food operations in 1987 helped make him one of America's richest men, with a personal fortune estimated at $400 million. He owned homes in New York City and Paris, a private jet and an extensive art collection.
He was also a African American male and head of the largest black-owned business in America -- even as he insisted that race was irrelevant and resisted being cast as a role model for others. He once turned down an offer from New York Mayor David Dinkins for a seat on New York's Advisory Council on Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises, saying he didn't have time -- though he had earlier joined the mayor's more prestigious Economic Advisory Council, where he served with David Rockefeller.
Yet in the nature of things, Mr. Lewis couldn't help but be a role model of sorts. He was a self-admittedly driven man who delighted in recounting how he started working at the age of nine delivering newspapers. In high school, he juggled a slew of part-time jobs, including running a bowling alley, working for a beer distributor and selling student portraits. Associates said he resolved early on what he wanted to accomplish.
History may judge the 1980s as a period when Wall Street ran amok in an orgy of corporate takeovers and leveraged buyouts. But Mr. Lewis saw opportunity and seized it. He cultivated the support of junk-bond king Michael Milken, who helped him swing the deal that made him famous. After acquiring Beatrice, Mr. Lewis immersed himself in the details of the business, sold off parts of the company to reduce his debt and eventually transformed his $20 million stake into a $300 million family fortune.
Mr. Lewis personified the poor boy who makes good by dint of hard work, savvy and chutzpah. In that he resembled other legendary American tycoons. Having insisted on being judged by his accomplishments alone, and that race "shouldn't be an issue," he will be remembered as a man who proved that it actually could be done.