The keeper of the Lewis heritage

Philanthropist's mother protects his legacy

December 11, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Carolyn Fugett welcomes you into her home as a new friend, almost family. She's warm and friendly and buoyantly energetic at an age she describes as "over 75." She immediately gives you the impression of strength. And she's the matriarch of a family that just seems to keep on growing.

"I am the mother of six children, one deceased," she says. "I have 13 grandchildren, and two greats."

Her deceased child, her first son, was Reginald F. Lewis, an extraordinary entrepreneur who rose from humble beginnings on North Dallas Street in East Baltimore to become the head of the billion-dollar TLC Beatrice International and one of America's richest men. He died with a brain tumor at the height of his success in 1993 when he was 50.

Lewis will be celebrated tonight at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with a gala that hopes to raise $1 million for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. The Lewis foundation gave $5 million for the museum, which is nearing completion at President and Pratt streets.

Lewis would have been 61 last Sunday. His mother sat down to talk about him and her life and her family a couple days later in her comfortable Randallstown home. She's lived here since 1987 with her husband, Jean Fugett Sr. The home is filled with photographs, paintings, drawings and family memorabilia.

"We call our house the heritage trail," she says. "With children of today and yesterday we have to make sure they know their heritage."

She leads the way.

"This is a Reginald here, maybe 20, 21."

His photograph is in a silver frame amid a nest of pictures on an end table.

Another picture shows her and Lewis in Paris on the occasion of her granddaughter Christina's first communion.

Lewis might be first among equals in Fugett's family, but Grandmother's just as enthusiastic about Christina, who has a story on the front page of the Stamford, Conn., Advocate. Christina's a new journalist, graduated just two years ago from Harvard, where her father earned his law degree. Her older sister, Leslie, graduated from Harvard in 1995.

Grandmother is very proud of her whole extended family.

"All six of my children graduated from college and most of them have advanced degrees," she says. Her son, Jean Fugett Jr., is a lawyer, too. He was a pretty good tight end for Dallas and Washington in the National Football League. He earned his law degree from George Washington University while playing for the Redskins.

Reginald Lewis was a first-string athlete at Dunbar High School, where he played basketball and captained the football team. He went to Virginia State University on a football scholarship.

"But he got hurt," Fugett says. "He called me and he said, `Mom, sports is not for me and I'm going to go academic.' And he put his shoulder to the wheel and that's what he did.

"He worked part-time at different things. He was always ahead of the game."

She's framed his handwritten schedule of his classes at Virginia State. At the bottom he wrote "To be a good lawyer one must study HARD." "HARD" is all capital letters and underlined.

Lewis got into Harvard on sheer drive and intelligence. They all but recruited him before he applied. And he was generously appreciative after he became wealthy. He gave $3 million to the law school, which named its International Law Center after him.

Lewis had homes in New York and Paris and on Long Island, where he moved easily in rarified realms of society. He'd come a long way from the picture that shows him a happy boy with his grandfather and cousins in a backyard on Dallas Street. But much of his ease and elegance may have come from Dallas Street, his mother says.

"My mother [was] Savilla Cooper and my father, Samuel J. Cooper," Fugett begins. "My mother brought quality and presence to you. My father brought elegance to you. So when Reginald was born he was born into quality, elegance, education. ... He didn't develop it. He was born with class.

"So when he bought this business that was international, it fit him like a glove," she says, forcefully. "Because nothing was new. My father was a hotel man. [Reginald] knew what frog legs were. He knew what smoked turkey was. He knew what Dom Perignon was. He knew what good-quality red wine was. Nothing was new. We had it on Dallas Street."

Samuel Cooper worked in various private clubs around Baltimore, places like the Governor's Club on Eutaw Place, and the Suburban Country Club on upper Park Heights Avenue. He served all but formal dinners at home on Dallas Street.

"We never had oil cloth in our house," Fugett declares. "We had table cloths. We had table napkins. We had table settings, always. We had base plates. When my father served Reginald tomato soup, he had a napkin on his arm.

"The quality and the presence of love was always with us. When my son made money it just embellished the situation."

Fugett's father had been a soldier in France in World War I. He and Reginald were very close.

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