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Ambassador at Large

Delano Lewis has been US Ambassador to South Africa and president of NPR, and he knows a who's who of world leaders from Bill Clinton to Nelson Mandela. So of course he's living in Las Cruces.

By Jeff Berg

 

So, what is the former US ambassador to South Africa, who knows former President Clinton, future presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, and who has met and worked with both versions of President George Bush and held court with Nelson Mandela, and met the former dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, not to mention having a turn as president of National Public Radio (NPR), working in the Peace Corps and currently serving on the board of several multinational corporations, doing living in Las Cruces, New Mexico?

Former Ambassador Delano Lewis.
(NSMU photo by Darren Phillips)

That's a question Delano Lewis finds himself answering frequently, as does his wife, Gayle. Although the latest line on his resume is as a senior fellow at New Mexico State University, helping to develop a new Institute for International Relations as well as advising on NMSU's public-broadcasting management, that's not what brought him here.

"In May of 1996, I was still president of NPR, and we were living in Maryland," he explains. "I came here to visit KRWG (the local NPR affiliate). I had never been to New Mexico or Las Cruces and I was by myself. I was staying at the Hilton, and I called home. Gayle asked me what Las Cruces was like, as she had been through New Mexico when she was a teenager. She returned to the state that month and just fell in love with it.

"It was nice to wake up to the views of the mountains, and we were looking around and stumbled into Pichacho Hills. We met a real estate agent (by accident), and she gave us lots of advice about moving here. We parted, and when we got back to the hotel, there was a message asking us to join her for dinner. The next day we spent looking at houses, narrowed it down to three, and ended up buying one that same day."

Gayle Lewis' explanation is simpler: "Because I fell in love with New Mexico when I came through here on a trip with my parents." She still has vivid memories of the family trip that brought her through northern New Mexico in the 1950s.

"New Mexico is so different than the other parts of the Southwest," she goes on. "Back then we had heard about Santa Fe and it was just a sleepy little town. I remember going into the cathedral there and also spending a night in Raton. The space, the light, the mountains, the sun. . . ." Her voice trails off as Delano picks up the story.

"This became a second home for us," he says, "but Gayle had a 'plan' and designs on the house, and part of the grand design was to get out of the DC area. So, she announced she was staying here. In December I was here for a visit, and looked at the mountains and the sunshine, and said to her, 'Maybe I'll have to quit work to do what you want.' I had been at NPR for four years, and it took about eight more months to sell the house and move here myself."

They later moved to their present home, on a hill in the West Mesa area of Las Cruces. It has great views of the area, and on this day the great Las Cruces snowstorm of 2007 is taking place. It has been snowing all morning, and there is actually some accumulation. No one is waxing his or her cross-country skis just yet, but the pleasant blaze in the Lewises' living room fireplace gives the day a delightful post-Christmas feel.

It was during the time that the Lewises were moving to that new house, in 1999, when "the" call came. Gayle say, "I remember that I was thinking, 'Should we move the computers today or tomorrow?' and the phone rang. The person on the other end said, 'The vice president wants to know if Mr. Lewis is in today."

"Mr. Lewis" laughs as he recalls how he scoffed at Gayle's mention of the vice president. But when Delano Lewis picked up the phone, the conversation continued: "Del? This is Al. I'm calling on you for Mr. Clinton. The president would like to nominate you to be the next ambassador to South Africa." Lewis repeated that back to Vice President Al Gore, while his wife kept nodding her head the whole time.

Without a second thought, Delano Lewis then replied, "I accept!"

"Congratulations," Gore said. "You'll hear from the state department."

"I didn't even know I was on the list!" Delano Lewis recalls. He did have a hint that something might be up when Bob Nash, who was the head of presidential appointments for Clinton, had called earlier to say he was "updating records."

The excitement of Gore's phone call soon faded, however, as the Lewises spent

the next 11 months in political limbo, his confirmation hearings slowing to a crawl. Lewis was formally nominated in June 1999, after security checks and such were taken care of. Then he waited.

"It was so political," Delano recalls with a note of annoyance. "Nine other ambassadors were approved but five were not. Somewhere along the way, my nomination fell through the cracks."

Another issue that paused the proceedings was the nomination of former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun–the only African-American woman ever to serve in the US Senate–as ambassador to New Zealand. Then-Senator Jesse Helms challenged her nomination as ambassador, and the controversy spilled over to Lewis' nomination. Moseley-Braun eventually made ambassador by a recess appointment (the same way the current President Bush got controversial nominee John Bolton in as UN ambassador), as was Delano Lewis.

He recalls, "I'd been to a movie and Gayle was at a tai chi class she had just enrolled in. The state department called and said, 'Mr. Ambassador, you've been approved.'"

Animatedly, Delano Lewis continues, "Hallelujah! I broke out the champagne, wrote love notes and put them around the house for when Gayle came home. I turned the lights down low. . . ."

Across the room, Gayle Lewis is looking a little shy right now.

Her husband continues, "I'm waiting and waiting and she doesn't show up. I look outside, and it turns out she had been sitting in the car talking to a friend on the phone for 20 minutes!"

Gayle defends her phone call: "Well, during the confirmation hearing we weren't allowed to talk to outside people about it."

It was exactly one year from Gore's phone call that Lewis finally found himself sitting in an ambassadorial seminar with 13 other nominees.

Although his past positions with the Peace Corps had taken him to Nigeria and Uganda, Delano Lewis had never been to South Africa, although Gayle had. During his brief stint as ambassador, they both learned to love the country and would in fact soon leave snowy Las Cruces for a return trip to South Africa–this time, only as guests. They have been planning on a group trip with a number of friends to the wine country of South Africa.

 

Both Gayle and Delano were born in Kansas, she in Topeka and he in the much smaller metropolis of Arkansas City. They met and married in Lawrence, Kan., where Delano received his bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas. He then graduated from the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka and became a city attorney; his career began to blossom from there. Although Gayle did not graduate from law school, Delano says with a smile, "She might as well have. She knows more than me."

Much of Gayle's time during the 30-plus years the Lewises spent in Washington, DC, was devoted to raising her family and to philanthropic work. They have four sons: Delano (Del Jr.), a marine engineer; Geoffrey, who owns his own software company; Brian, a chef, who runs a family-owned business in Florida called Herman T's. . . . Proudly, before getting around to son number four, Delano shares that the barbeque restaurant, which relies on an old family recipe that son Brian has successfully replicated, was recently named "best barbeque on the beach" in St. Petersburg.

"The recipe is a dry rub on smoked meat. We taught all of the boys to cook," Gayle adds.

The slightly dreamy look in her husband's eyes makes one think that he wishes he were there for lunch instead of sitting still for yet another interview during the Blizzard of '07.

Phill is the Lewises' fourth son, and he lives in LA, where he is one of the co-stars of the very successful, Emmy-nominated television show, "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody." Gayle says, "It is a comedy about a set of twins who live with their mom at the Tipton Hotel, where she is a lounge singer." The show is in its second season on the Disney Channel. Phill Lewis plays the hotel manager, "Mr. Moseby."

 

Their son Phill was born in Uganda, during the Lewises' first stint living in Africa, more than three decades before Delano's ambassadorial appointment. They went to Nigeria in 1966 when he became the associate director for the Peace Corps there. Later he became the Peace Corps country director in Uganda.

While in Uganda, they met Idi Amin, who would become notorious as dictator of Uganda. Gayle recalls, "I was very taken with Uganda, and he was the head of the army at that time. We had to learn when to be on the road and when not to be on the road. He wanted nothing to do with the American Peace Corps. We would see him around, with any number of kids (Amin had numerous wives and offspring), and tried to not introduce ourselves. He said once, 'We're restless, we need a war.'"

The Lewises still vividly recall the end of that first experience living in Africa. His departure proved harrowing due to civil strife in the area, including Biafra. "I went to Biafra as director for a while," he says, "and helped with the evacuation of 200-plus volunteers from East Nigeria. We stood on our porch one day and said, 'Don't you think we should get out of here?' By then, both the US embassy staff and consulate had left."

Gayle soon left to return to the States for her sister's wedding. By the time Delano attempted to follow, however, a key bridge was held by opposition troops, blocking his exit. He ended up evacuating by barge, which took him and some other people to a steamer.

"We were thinking about getting caught in a crossfire, but the mosquitoes were worse than the bullets," he recalls with a slight roll of his eyes. "We took the steamer to Lagos (Nigeria), and I made it home in time for Gayle's sister's wedding."

Back in the US, Delano took a stateside post as the director of the Peace Corps' Eastern and Southern Africa division. From there, he went to work for then-Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. In 1973 he moved on to the first of several positions with a Bell Atlantic subsidiary, the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. in the Washington, DC, area, winding up as CEO.

Delano Lewis joined National Public Radio as president and CEO in January 1994, articulating a vision to make NPR "the leading provider of high quality news, information and cultural programming worldwide." During his tenure, he focused on three areas: top-quality programming, financial strength and customer service. He also led NPR through a federal funding crisis in 1995. When Lewis retired from NPR effective Aug. 1, 1998, F. Kim Hodgson, chairman of the NPR board of directors, said, "Delano Lewis has carried out his responsibility as president and CEO magnificently. The senior management team is the best in the company's history, and is superbly organized to pursue vigorously NPR's mission."

 

The appointment as ambassador to South Africa, meant to be the crowning achievement of Delano Lewis' career, proved to be a difficult job. It was partially Bill Clinton's memory that helped Delano get the post, as Clinton recalled him from an economic summit in Arkansas, when Clinton was still governor of that state. On and off, Lewis had worked on various Democratic campaigns, for such people as Robert F. Kennedy, Gary Hart and Marion Berry, the former mayor of DC.

One thing Delano learned the hard way: "It helps to have some extra cash when you are an ambassador, as you pay for a lot of stuff out of pocket."

Gayle was not too thrilled with the home and furnishings in South Africa, but was able to finagle some better furniture and other essentials to make their stay more tolerable. Another difficult situation they had to deal with was the distance between the administrative offices of the embassy, which are located in Pretoria, and the country's other capital of Cape Town, a thousand miles away.

But there were compensations. "We saw Nelson Mandela on several occasions, and he is the kind of person that brightens up your life every day," Delano recalls. "We paid our respects at some business meetings, and one day when we met, he asked about the family."

One of the Lewises' sons was visiting at the time, with a couple of their 11 (total) grandchildren in tow. When told that they were waiting in the car, Mandela said, "Waiting in the car? Why, bring them in! Tell them that Nelson Mandela thinks that their grandfather is an important man!"

Lewis' ambassadorship ended after the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Delano recalls, "We really wanted to stay in South Africa, but Bush had no foreign policy for the country. Colin Powell was laying policy for Africa. We thought we could extend until a successor was confirmed."

Delano returned to Washington, DC, at one point during the transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations, where he vividly recalls an appointment with Dick Cheney: "They looked at me somewhat curiously when I arrived for the meeting. I said, 'I have an appointment with Vice President-designate Cheney.' The reception people said, 'Oh, there haven't been many black people coming here to see him.'"

Delano sums up his opinion of Vice President Dick Cheney in just two words: "He's vicious." Then he adds with a smile, "But we still get a Christmas card every year from him."

By April 2001, the Lewises knew they could no longer stand to wait for a new US ambassador to South Africa to be confirmed. Gayle remembers feeling, "We cannot do this. We knew they were going to invade Iraq, and we couldn't buy what they were doing, and because of that, we knew we could not represent this administration."

Delano says, "I called the state department and said, 'We want to come out.' They asked me to think about it for 24 hours, but the decision was the same the next day. I told them, yes, we are sure.

"I was just not sure of Bush's foreign policy."

 

In his busy post-ambassador life, back in Las Cruces, Delano Lewis was named a senior fellow at NMSU last fall, reporting directly to President Michael V. Martin. At NMSU, Lewis has assumed a leadership role in the development of an Institute for International Relations that will serve as the state's think tank on the topic. "I expect the international institute will engage students in international issues and prepare them for leadership positions in international affairs, foreign policy, business and trade," he says. "I believe we can help the state, the community and the region develop international business opportunities and address international issues important to them and the country."

He's also taken on an advisory role with NMSU's public broadcasting, working with the "incoming director to develop a strong, strategic plan for both the station and academic departments." His goals are to assist and guide the new leadership in growth and development opportunities such as local programming and local news, funding, increasing viewers and listeners and strengthening student involvement.

Plus Delano still serves on the boards of Colgate Palmolive, Eastman Kodak and Chalk Media.

Gayle Lewis, on the other hand, is enjoying "semi" retirement, doing art and taking Spanish classes. "He was born with a date book in his hand," she quips. "If I were to have looked at it when we met, it would say 'class, class, nap.' But I decided that picture would be different…"

She has recently taken up writing, and has nearly completed a memoir of sorts. Her current subject is based on the letters she sent home to her mother when the Lewises lived in Nigeria while working for the Peace Corps in the 1960s. The project is nearing completion and Gayle is very pleased with the promise that the work holds for her. Delano says, "She kept all of the letters, and you can almost trace Nigeria's political history of that time from them."

A bit shy about her painting, she notes that she had "not intended to put what she had put on canvas." She likes how the painting ended up, nonetheless.

The Lewises have enjoyed many adventures and much success in their lives. Both have given some thought to what has helped them mark such a mark on the world.

Gayle attributes her success to a strong and supportive family when she was growing up. "We received encouragement for whatever we wanted to do, and got a strong feeling from our father that we should respect everyone, including one's self. I remember one time when I was growing up during the war that someone referred to 'the Japs.' He corrected them by saying, 'They are Japanese, not Japs."

Delano's face brightens when he relates his story: "My third grandson, when he was nine years old, said, 'My grandfather (Delano) is ambassador to TWO countries, New Mexico and South Africa.'" He pauses to chuckle, then continues what his grandson said, "'And the reason for that is because he got good grades and is nice to people.'

"I thought, 'That sums up life, that's just right, and it came from a nine year old.' Being nice to people meant being good to the mentors that have helped us with each move."

He adds with a touch of pride and a laugh, "And I did get good grades!"

Gayle picks up that theme: "Good grades come from hard work and the time and energy invested in that work. Hard work is a pleasure. It helps create the surprises that come with it."

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg is usually nice to
people, but never got good grades.

 

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