After a long and successful career in business and government — he was U.S. ambassador to South Africa, a top executive at Verizon, CEO of National Public Radio, Peace Corps director of East and South Africa, and a major player in Washington, D.C., politics — no one could blame Delano Lewis if he chose to sit back and enjoy a quiet retirement at the Las Cruces home he shares with his wife, Gayle.
Not a chance. Delano, 81, is as busy as ever. He has a consulting contract with New Mexico State University; his Left Right Forward Foundation will soon continue the podcast interview series he began in 2018; he’s partnering on a new project to chronicle the Black experience in America; and he’s sharing his personal experiences with segregation, racism, and race relations with his 11 grandchildren. He is no stranger to hard work and big plans. He grew up in a segregated community in Kansas City, Kansas, in the late 1930s and ’40s, the only child of a railroad worker and a domestic.
Delano graduated from Sumner High School in Kansas City in 1956, where he played trumpet in the school band and was a drum major. Delano learned about the importance of “caring for others” from both his parents and became interested in civil rights and the law at a young age. He graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence in 1960 — the same year he married the former Gayle Jones — and decided to pursue a legal career to change the system “through the rule of law,” earning his Juris Doctor from Washburn School of Law in Topeka, Kansas, in 1963. He was soon offered a job in the Internal Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Delano arrived in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 12, 1963, his 25th birthday. Ten days later, while on his way to the department’s Main Library, Delano learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Delano later became a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; served on the staff of Republican Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, 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.
“Retiring” to ambassador
After guiding the passage of the Washington, D.C., Home Rule Act through Congress in 1973, Delano made his only bid for public office, running against eight others for a seat on the Washington, D.C., city council. He lost to future D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, but then led Barry’s transition team into the mayor’s office five years later. Delano himself was often touted as a candidate for D.C. mayor. After a 35-year career, Delano planned to retire in 1998. As he and Gayle were packing to move to a larger house in the Rasaaf Hills neighborhood near Mesilla, Delano got a call from Vice President Al Gore, offering him the post of ambassador to South Africa. Delano held that position until 2001, when he and Gayle finally did “retire” to Las Cruces. Throughout his long tenure in private business and public service — as detailed in his books, It All Begins with Self (2015) and No Condition Is Permanent: A Collection of Memories (2018) — Delano has remained true to three core ideals: hope, perseverance, and service to others. He counts among his friends and heroes Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Madeline Albright, and Nelson Mandela, and shares with them “a vision for a better tomorrow.” As part of his consulting contract with Provost Carol Parker, Delano is working to give New Mexico State University a more international focus to expand learning and career opportunities for graduates around the world.
Continuing to serve
Even with state budget cuts to education, Delano remains optimistic. “I’m excited about it,” he said. His podcast guests have included Gen. Colin Powell, Black
Entertainment Television co-founder Robert Johnson, Washington Post publisher Don Graham, and actor-director (and Delano and Gayle’s son) Phill Lewis, who was born in Uganda when Delano was with the Peace Corps. Going forward, Delano wants the podcasts to focus on education and fill a gap in civics studies in the public-school curriculum. Currently, he said, “There really is no learning about government and how it works.” Since the spring, Delano has spent about four hours a week on the phone with author and film producer Adam Kennedy, first as an interview subject and now as a full partner as the two collect biographies of pioneering Blacks across the country, raise funds, and seek out Black role models and mentors as part of their mission to “capture, chronicle, and share the positive and uplifting stories of Black America” (theblackexperience.us). “I can’t tell you the impact of the George Floyd murder,” Delano said, describing it as “one of the defining moments in my lifetime. It was so vivid, and it reached so many people. It sparked a realization that something’s not right in America as it relates to the police and particularly African Americans. This country has not faced the legacy of slavery. I’ve said it over and over and over. Now it’s being said by lots of people. It’s being talked about. It’s begun to be understood.”
Passing his story to his grandchildren
Delano began sharing his remarkable life story with his grandchildren, ages 18 to 34, and their spouses and significant others via Zoom in July. Nine of the 11 joined “Gramps” from California, Florida, and Maryland. The major takeaway for Delano was that, “As biracial grandkids, they all understood ‘racism’ and agreed it was systematic in its ‘slavery roots’ in America and must be confronted and eliminated from our society,” he said.
“I was proud to learn that they were all active in some way by speaking out and letting their voices be heard in helping our country become a more perfect union.” “I remember the segregated lunch counters,” said Delano, who also recalls that there were two Black theaters in Kansas City when he was growing up there. “I went to the only all-Black high school in Kansas.” And, the Topeka school board was the defendant in the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. “All of this is very close to home,” Delano said.
Written by Mike Cook • Photos courtesy Delano Lewis
Originally published in Neighbors magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com