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Las Cruces loses another icon: Former ambassador Delano Lewis has died


(Editor’s note: The Las Cruces Bulletin has received word that former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Delano Lewis has died. According to reports the Bulletin received, Lewis had been in care at Mesilla Valley Hospice and died Wednesday, Aug. 3. He was 84 years old. The Bulletin published this story in May 2019.)

New book by Delano Lewis filled with memories of presidents, politics, business and law

By Mike Cook, Las Cruces Bulletin

It’s hard to imagine a more interesting or meaningful life than one that led Delano Lewis from a small town in Kansas to the highest levels of law, business, government, politics and public service as a trail-blazing African-American during a 35-year career in Washington, D.C., to retirement in Las Cruces.

Lewis gathered stories from his remarkable life into a new book, “No Condition Is Permanent: A Collection of Memories,” published in 2019.

Born in Arkansas City, Kansas Nov. 12, 1938, Lewis lived through segregation and rose to become the first African-American CEO of National Public Radio. He worked in the U.S. Department of Justice, was a major telephone company executive during the breakup of the Bell system, was director of East and South Africa for the Peace Corps and led the effort to establish home rule in Washington, D.C., where he was a major player in city politics and often touted as a candidate for mayor.

After his retirement, Lewis was called back into public service in 1998, serving three years as U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

Lewis is a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, a former classmate of NBA great Wilt Chamberlain and the father of a television actor and director, Phil Lewis, who played Mr. Moseby for six years on the Disney Channel series “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and “The Suite Life on Deck.”

Phil Lewis also helped his dad write “No Condition Is Permanent.”

“I am pretty sure that if you read much of this book, you will find yourself saying: ‘This guy is too good to be true,’” former Washington Post publisher Don Graham said in the book’s foreword.

Graham said he met Lewis in the late 1960s when both were young business executives in the nation’s capital.

“There were people who were respected in DC’s white community and others who were respected in its much larger African-American community,” Graham said. “A tiny number were respected in both, and Del Lewis would have led that list.”

Lewis remembers his humble beginnings in rural Kansas.

“I grew up in a segregated community,” he said.

Lewis was the only child of a father who worked for the railroad and a mother who served as a domestic.

He graduated from Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1956. The staff was all Black and had “the best teachers,” he said, teaching at a segregated school because they couldn’t get teaching jobs elsewhere.

Lewis got a “very good, solid education,” he said, played the violin and trumpet in the school band and was a drum major.

Brought up “caring for others” and at the same time knowing that “segregation was there,” Lewis became interested in civil rights and the law at an early age.

Lewis decided to pursue a legal career to “try to make change through the rule of law,” he said. “I just believed that you could change within the system.”

Lewis married the former Gayle Jones in 1960 and has “benefited from her love, trust and truth” for nearly 60 years, he said.

Lewis also graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence in 1960. He earned a juris doctorate from the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas in 1963.

With jobs in most local law firms not open to Blacks, Lewis went to work for a sole practitioner in Topeka. He soon got a call from the Justice Department offering him a job in the Internal Security Division. Lewis arrived in Washington, D.C., on his 25th birthday. Ten days later, he was on Capitol Hill the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, working for Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

Lewis later became a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke, a liberal Republican and the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate; became CEO of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company; and served on the boards of Colgate-Palmolive and Eastman Kodak, among others.

After guiding Washington, D.C.’s Home Rule Act through Congress in 1973, Lewis made his only bid for public office, as one of nine candidates running for a seat on the D.C. city council. He lost to future Mayor Marion Barry, but then led Barry’s transition team into the mayor’s office in 1978.

Life and career are about three things, Lewis said: hope, perseverance and service to others. His friends and heroes, including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, have all offered “a vision for a better tomorrow,” Lewis said.

Also the author of “It All Begins With Self,” published 2015, Lewis said the title of his second book comes from an African proverb he’s known for more than 50 years.

“I hope my memories will inspire many to take chances and live life with no regrets, move beyond your shortcomings and never let your past define you,” Lewis said.

Excerpt from “No Condition Is Permanent”

In the fall of 1998, as Delano Lewis and his wife, Gayle, were packing to move to their second home in Las Cruces, the phone rang. Gayle answered, then handed the phone to her husband, whispering, “It’s the vice president of the United States calling!”

“He says, ‘Del, this is Al’ (Gore),” Lewis wrote. “Then his voice turned very official and he continued, ‘Del, I am calling on behalf of President Clinton and the president would like to nominate you as the next ambassador to the Republic of South Africa.”