A famous son of Baltimore re-emerges

September 18, 2005|By Jay Hancock

NOT THE LEAST of the buzz at the gala June opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture came from the reappearance of Jean S. Fugett Jr., former NFL tight end, former CEO of TLC Beatrice, half-brother of Reg Lewis and once one of Baltimore's most prominent sons.

"Where have you been?" everybody asked, as Fugett cruised through the atrium in a tux. "Yeah, Jean, I thought you were in Paris. I didn't know you were back in Baltimore. ... What HAVE you been doing?"

Good question. But the answer - fighting grief, diabetes, depression, unemployment and a brush with bankruptcy - might have ruined the moment.

Fugett dropped off the map after leaving in 1994 as boss of TLC Beatrice, a billion-dollar food and household products company he ran after the 1993 death of Lewis, who had shepherded it as the nation's largest African-American-owned company.

After selling a stake in a French business, Fugett lost money on an investment in voice mail with audio sports highlights, gained weight, contracted diabetes and then, in the late 1990s, would sometimes find himself weeping as he injected insulin into his arm. Depression and diabetes often go together.

"I really haven't had a job in five years," he says. "I just had no motivation. I could not possibly imagine at that time doing anything any better than I had done already, or to even ask God to give me any more."

These days, he can, and he wants to talk. Partly it's to discuss the past - to answer queries that probably haven't stopped since the gala, and presumably for therapeutic purposes. ("When you are able to discuss your frailties, that's the road to recovery," says Carolyn Fugett, 80, Jean's mother and my vote for Baltimore's wisest person.)

But mainly Fugett wants to talk about launching a product that might be even more unorthodox than sports-highlights voice mail: non-sleazy money advice for professional athletes that will have them invest responsibly and plan for the future instead of letting them blow paychecks on Porsches and hookers.

Gerald R. Veydt, 51, is a Towson insurance agent and stockbroker. He approached Fugett last year to help him add sports figures to a portfolio that includes "high net worth" Baltimore families and what he says is some $40 million or $50 million under management.

A friend of former Baltimore Colt Randy McMillan who spent decades watching retired athletes lose money on bad restaurants and wacky commodities schemes, Veydt thought he had something to offer. In 2001, he became one of the first to register as a financial adviser with the NFL Players Association, which was trying to shield jocks from fools and charlatans.

But Veydt could never get past athletes' agents, and realized he needed a partner. Fugett, who played for the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins in the 1970s, had been a lawyer-agent before he joined Beatrice, representing Cowboys' defensive lineman Tony Tolbert, among others.

Veydt saw Fugett's name in a list of agents, recognized it and called him. They talked. And gradually Veydt, a white guy from Dundalk, was drawn into the life of a black guy from West Baltimore who rose far above his origins only to hit a rough patch in middle age.

Part of Fugett's funk probably came from Reg Lewis' death. The older brother - the family never says "half-brother" - was Fugett's hero and friend and in 1993 he was dead six months after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

Part of it was leaving Beatrice, which Lewis had acquired in a leveraged buyout in the 1980s. Lewis chose Fugett as his successor, but Fugett left a year later, facing pressure to cut costs amid soft results and what he says was an impossible dilemma - pleasing minority shareholders who wanted higher stock values or family members who wanted the lowest tax possible on Lewis' estate.

Fugett says his departure was "a family decision." Time magazine and others have reported that he was ousted by Reg Lewis' widow, Loida, who owned most of the stock and decided to run the company herself.

Part of it was the letdown after getting everything relatively easily his first 40 years - entering Amherst College at 16, becoming the NFL's youngest player at 20 in 1972, playing in the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, getting a law degree from George Washington University and then running a major corporation.

And part of it was the diabetes, a disease all too common for African-Americans that often produces mood swings and despair.

"He was really on a merry-go-round," his mother said. "You finish college, you play football and then you go with your brother" at Beatrice. "Seeing Reginald live and die for both my sons" - businessman Anthony Fugett is the other - "was very difficult."

Fugett wasn't completely idle while unemployed. He worked on projects such as a Beatrice memoir and researching the identities of the first black athletes at every Division I university.

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