Former ambassador to South Africa visits Cristo Rey

Ambassador Delano Lewis chats with a group of Cristo Rey students after his talk Oct. 17. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Delano Lewis, in 1999 appointed U.S. Ambassador to South Africa by President Bill Clinton, visited Cristo Rey High School Oct. 17 and spoke to the students about the value of an education and how education can help them realize their dreams.

Delano Lewis, named for then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was born in 1938 in Arkansas City, Kan., the only child of Raymond E. and Enna L. Lewis — “ardent Democrats,” as he described them. His father a porter for the Santa Fe Railroad, moved the family to Kansas City, Kan., when Delano was a small boy.

He told the students that the 1940s through the 1960s and even later, was a time of segregation for African Americans, fraught, and fought, with demonstrations, marches and some pitched battles. Their “all-black” community was surrounded by stores, restaurants and theaters where blacks were not allowed, but Delano’s mother refused to let that defeat her and her family. She impressed upon her son the value of an education, as education could be life-changing.

Lewis shared with the students a viewpoint of his mother that influenced his later life: “You can do anything in life, except sing.” He couldn’t sing, he agreed, but he could be the drum major in his high school and college marching bands. He attended Sumner High School, and Kansas Boys State leadership camps during his junior and senior years. He proudly recalled his high school year book profile: National Honor Society, etc.

By the time he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Kansas, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer and, due to the influence of and regard he held for several of his Sumner High School teachers, he wanted to be a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He also knew that to be a lawyer required graduating from college, graduating from law school and passing the state bar exam.

He disliked dorm life, but as soon as the Alpha Phi Alpha pledge was able to move into the fraternity house, he enjoyed living there with his two roommates.

And he cracked the books.

Lewis met Gayle Carolyn Jones at KU in 1956, when he was “a 17-year-old freshman and she was a 16-year-old junior. Yes, she’s smart!” They began dating in 1958 and married two years later. Raised in the Baptist tradition, he converted to Catholicism when they married.

He graduated from KU in 1960 and began law school at Washburn University in Topeka. Married, with an infant son, his home life was busy. The bills still needed paying so he worked 44 hours weekly at the Menninger Psychiatric Hospital, which then was in Topeka, and he was in law school full-time. He still graduated “on time.” His second son was born the day before Lewis took the bar exam.

“Self-confidence is key to success,” he said. “Know your strengths and your weaknesses, capitalize on the strengths. Know where you want to be and work in that direction.”

After passing the bar exam, the new lawyer went to work in the U.S. Justice Dept. as a President John F. Kennedy appointee and later in the Office of Compliance in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1966, he served first as an associate director and later as Country Director for the Peace Corps in Nigeria and Uganda before he and his family returned to the U.S. in 1969, settling in Washington, D.C.  He recalled for the students touring Ethiopia during the time of Hailee Selassie, “a descendant of Judah.”

He spent the next decade in government work, both senatorial and mayoral, in Washington.

With four growing sons, Lewis decided to work in the business sector for a change. He had joined the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., in 1973 as public affairs manager, becoming CEO in 1990. In 1993, Lewis became president and CEO of National Public Radio. A year later he was named to the board of directors of Apple Computer, stepping down in 1997, citing “pressing time demands” and resigned from NPR the following year.

He was named the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa by Pres. Bill Clinton and served from 1999 – 2001. He recounted for the students how his job then was representing the president in that country and the importance of knowing U.S. foreign policy as well as learning the country’s customs, mores and history. He met with Nelson Mandela on several occasions, he said. “Africa opened my eyes to many things.” He encouraged the students to investigate other parts of the world, cultures, people, languages and mores.

“We don’t have all the answers.”

He and Gayle later moved to New Mexico, where he started Lewis and Associates, a consultancy. In 2006, Lewis was named a senior fellow at New Mexico State University, and the following year, the founding director of the university’s International Relations Institute.

Among his civic awards, he received the Catholic University’s President’s Medal in 1978, and was named Kansan of the Year in 2009. He has also written several books, among them, “It All Begins with Self.”

Lewis has seen a lot, done a lot, learned a lot, and met a lot of people but, he said the most influential person he’s met, who has had the great influence in his life, is his wife of 58 years, Gayle. A collective “Awwwwww!” resounded through the room.

After his presentation, he chatted with the students for a time, then toured the school. The students could be heard exclaiming about his presentation as they hurried to class.


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September 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph