Baltimore buries an honored son Mourners salute Reginald Lewis

January 24, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

In an exceptional outpouring of community pride yesterday West Baltimore buried Reginald Francis Lewis, a native son who rose from humble beginnings to become one of America's richest men and the head of the nation's largest black-owned business.

Mr. Lewis, who was 50 when he died Tuesday of a cerebral hemorrhage after a battle against brain cancer, didn't get the short, private funeral that his wife, the former Loida Nicolas, said he wanted.

Instead, 600 people -- including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and the cream of Baltimore's black political and business communities -- packed St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church for a wake and funeral service that lasted more than four hours.

The church is in the heart of Rosemont, the neighborhood where Mr. Lewis grew up.

It was an emotional tribute, marked by quiet tears and gales of laughter as the mourners celebrated Mr. Lewis' often-remarkable life. It was capped by the moving testimony of Mrs. Lewis, his Philippine-born wife of 24 years.

"I have loved you without conditions, without reservations, and my love for you will never end," she said. "My dearest, dearest darling, I love you, I love you, I love you. I shall see you again when it is my time to go."

The mourners came from Rosemont, where Mr. Lewis began his business career delivering the Afro-American newspaper (and then selling the route at a profit).

And they came from Paris, where he spent much time overseeing his business empire as chairman and chief executive officer of TLC Beatrice International Holdings, a food conglomerate.

Messages to the Lewis family were read from, among others, President Bill Clinton, former President Ronald Reagan, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell and comedian Bill Cosby.

"Regardless of race, color or creed," Mr. Cosby wrote, "we are all dealt a hand to play in this game of life and, believe me, Reg Lewis played the hell out of his hand."

Symbolic of his zest for life, Mr. Lewis was buried at New Cathedral Cemetery on Old Frederick Road with a box of his favorite cigars, a 1985 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne and a tennis racket. The music at the funeral included "Amazing Grace" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way" -- and neither seemed out of place.

The entrepreneur was remembered for his philanthropy, his devotion to family and his continuing interest in Baltimore.

Among beneficiaries of the $10 million he gave away in the last five years of his life were Morgan State University, the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen and St. Edward's, the church where yesterday's service was held.

Although Mr. Lewis preferred not to be singled out as a "black success story," speakers could not resist hailing his life as an example for black children.

"He did not want race to be the defining issue of his life, but he has become a powerful role model for minority children everywhere," Mayor Schmoke said.

"He has shown the young people of Baltimore and the entire country how hard work, discipline and education can overcome obstacles of poverty and race. This message of hope may be his most lasting accomplishment."

Mr. Lewis was born Dec. 7, 1942, to Clinton L. Lewis and Carolyn Cooper Lewis. As a youngster, he lived with his mother and her parents on Dallas Street in a poor east-side neighborhood. His father died several years ago.

The mourners erupted in laughter yesterday when Loida Lewis said the Cooper family was so respected in the area that illegal numbers runners would ask them to hold their money "because they knew it was safe."

At 9, Reginald moved to Rosemont after his mother married Jean Fugett Sr. The family stressed education, hard work and perseverance.

Reginald "had a great mind," Mrs. Fugett recalled yesterday, "but the thing that made it so great was that he followed through."

At Dunbar High School, he was an outstanding student, football quarterback, basketball guard, baseball shortstop and senior class vice president.

Judge Robert M. Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals, who was president of the Dunbar Class of 1961, remembered Mr. Lewis as "tough, decisive, inspirational and also focused."

Later, he said, his Dunbar classmates were "extraordinarily proud" of Mr. Lewis' success.

Mr. Lewis went to Virginia State University and then to Harvard Law School, where his mother said he was admitted before he even filled out an application. He gave $3 million last year to the law school, where the international law center was named for him.

After interning at a prestigious Baltimore law firm, he went to New York to seek his fortune. He built his own firm, learned the art of the deal as a lawyer and finally set up TLC in 1983 because, as a friend once quoted him as saying, "I want to do something that will allow me to make money while I'm sleeping."

Mr. Lewis achieved that goal with his 1987 leveraged buyout of Beatrice International for $985 million. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated his personal wealth at $400 million.

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