Remembering Delano Lewis, An Eclectic and Inspirational Leader

Delano Lewis, a member of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) Board of Directors since 2008, died on Aug. 2, 2023. He was 84. Lewis had an eclectic career as a public servant, businessman, and diplomat, serving as U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

Remembering Ambassador Delano Lewis

“Delano led a life of meaning and service in both the public and private sectors and in locations across the globe,” said Patricia Gurin, chair of the AIR board. “He brought insights and perspectives from those experiences to the board and deeply influenced AIR’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and its focus on mission.”

“Delano inspired us through his work, his words, and his actions, and his leadership helped make us a better institution,” said AIR CEO David Myers. “We are so grateful for his service to AIR and extend our sympathies to his wife, Gayle, his children and his family and friends.” 

Overcoming the Odds to Forge an Impressive Career

Ambassador Lewis grew up in a segregated Kansas community in the 1950s, the son of a railroad porter and stay-at-home mom. His parents named him Delano after Franklin Delano Roosevelt, calling him “De-lay-no.”

In his 2015 memoir, It All Begins with Self, he shared feelings of isolation and questions about his ability to compete when he was young. But he persisted, earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Kansas and a law degree at Washburn University School of Law. He attributed his success to a strong family foundation, solid education and training, hard work, perseverance, and committed mentors and supporters.

As a newly minted lawyer, Ambassador Lewis served 10 years in the federal government, beginning in 1963 as an attorney with U.S. Department of Justice and then in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Office of Compliance. He then served in the U.S. Peace Corps, first as associate director in Nigeria and then country director in Uganda—countries with which AIR partners. From there, he served as legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and as chief of staff for Walter Fauntroy, the District of Columbia’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1973, he moved to the private sector and worked his way up the ranks, from public affairs manager to CEO, at the Chesapeake & Potomac (C&P) Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T and then Bell Atlantic. In 1984, he became an executive at Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), “retiring” in 1993 as president and CEO of the District of Columbia operations.

He did not retire for long. That same year, Ambassador Lewis’s career veered again when he accepted the position of president and CEO of mission-driven National Public Radio—a move that surprised many. Charged with increasing NPR’s role in an evolving, competitive environment for communications technology and raising money to keep public radio solvent, he told The New York Times, “It’s not such a leap. I’ve run a communications company.” He also quipped, “I never worked so hard for a pay cut in my life.” He was the first African American president of NPR, serving “magnificently” for five years, according to NPR’s chairman of the board at the time.

In 1999, soon after leaving NPR, President Clinton nominated Lewis as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, where he served until 2001. After retiring from diplomatic service, he moved to New Mexico, where he established a communications consulting practice, Lewis & Associates, and consulted and lectured for many groups and organizations in Las Cruces. He was named a senior fellow at New Mexico State University, and in 2007 became the founding director of the university’s International Relations Institute and later was named interim dean for international affairs.  

Engagement and Awards

Throughout his career in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Lewis was deeply involved in civic life. For instance, he served a one-year term as president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and advocated for home rule in the nation’s capital, which was established in 1973. He was often described as a “power broker” in the city.

In addition to his service on the AIR Board of Directors, he also served many corporate boards, including Apple, Colgate Palmolive, Black Entertainment Television, Eastman Kodak, Geico, Halliburton, and JP Morgan Chase. At Colgate Palmolive, he was involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts well before most companies were engaged in this work.

Ambassador Lewis received many awards over his lifetime, including Washingtonian of the Year and distinguished Alumni Citation from his alma mater, the University of Kansas. He also received many honorary degrees from such institutions as Barry University, Bowie State University, Washburn University, George Washington University, Kent State University, NOVA Southeastern University, Southern Illinois University, and Lafayette College.

Media Contact

Dana Tofig

Managing Director, Corporate Communications