The list of careers Delano Lewis has held is lengthy and diverse. After graduating from KU in 1960 with majors in political science and history and a law degree soon after, he embarked on a career including roles with the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Peace Corps in Nigeria and Uganda, as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, CEO of NPR and more than 20 years in telecommunications with C & P Telco in D.C., culminating as president of Bell Atlantic/DC, which is now Verizon.
Alongside his professional career, Lewis has made contributions as a public servant and philanthropist in the Washington, D.C. community, and on a federal level. Recently, he’s focused his energy on sharing his experiences with others, compiling his life lessons in his memoir, “It All Begins with Self: How to Discover Your Passion, Connect with People, and Succeed in Life.”
In recognition of his diverse and impactful career, the KU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is honoring Lewis with our 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award. We sat down with him to learn more about his approach to leadership and learning.
KU degree: Bachelor’s in political science and history (1960)
Current title: Author and motivational speaker
What does it mean to you to be a Jayhawk? It’s the beginning of my growth, it started in Lawrence. To me, coming out of high school, KU presented me the opportunity to explore and to learn. I was excited about learning, and I had great professors. I had a great European history teacher (Professor William Gilbert) that made history fun. The thirst of learning and knowledge I had leaves a strong memory of KU.
I was in a fraternity, and it was a really wonderful experience for me, living in a fraternity house and becoming a fraternity brother, an Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest predominantly black Greek organization. And, KU is where I met my wife. For her, her parents were KU grads, her grandparents had gone to school there, her brother and sister on her side went, and I was the first person to attend college in my family. KU has that kind of strong attachment for us. It was a place of learning, a place of having fun, a place of experiencing life right out of high school.
How did you discover your career? I had an idea that I wanted to be a lawyer to work in civil rights. But when I got the offer at the Justice Department, it was in the criminal division, internal security division; we were looking for communists and spies. I spent one year learning how to do the job and one year trying to get out. It was nothing close to civil rights. But I had an opportunity to go to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, who would really get into employment discrimination, where I really had a chance to use the law, so that was a really good move.
Then out of the blue at a dinner party a woman asked me if I wanted to go to Africa. And I said “Africa? How could I do that? I’m just out of Kansas.” She said, “Well you could go to Africa with the United States Peace Corps.” I wouldn’t have known that living in Kansas, that such an offer existed in the mid-60s, that you could go as a federal employee, with your family, salary and housing provided, to be an administrator of an American program. So I was getting further from the law, but it was something to think about. When I came back and I told Gayle (my wife) that I was thinking about it, and that maybe I could get into civil rights in Jefferson City if we came back to this area, she said “Jefferson City? Nigeria? Is there any choice here?” But she was excited about going away.
Every time I was making these moves within the federal government I would talk to my dad, and he would say to me, “Why are you leaving? Why are you changing jobs?” He was a Santa Fe railroader, and he was there for 37 years. In his generation, you found a good job, and you stuck with it. In my case, I got to understand the system of government work fairly quickly. D.C. is a lawyer’s town. If you are interested in the law and government, D.C. is the place. It’s just a great network. I found a way to move up when I moved out, so I would soak in all that information. Sometimes you have to move outside your comfort zone to seize your opportunities.
What are some points you want your audiences to take away from your speeches or your book? I’m just a strong believer in education, and I wouldn’t be able to do the things I did without it. Sometimes we get hung up on education with degrees, more degrees, and advanced degrees. I’ll never forget, someone once said “if you’ve got your B.A. degree, then you’re trainable.” You mean I’m spending all this money and time and I’m just going to be trainable? And that’s about what you are. And then you move into work and you develop experiences. In education, the degrees are important, but the experiences, the internships, the studying abroad, all of those things lead to your experience base.
Information is power. I tell people there are so many resources out there today, and now with the Internet there shouldn’t be any excuse at all. In my day it was a lot of who you knew, and it still is today, but it’s combined with the knowledge you have at your fingertips.
Does learning end after graduation? Thirty-five years of full time work living in Washington, and we are continually learning. People talk about retirement; I don’t know what that is. Keep doing things, keep your mind active, and share. That’s what I’m trying to do with the book I’ve written and the speeches that I’ve given, is share my experiences and hopefully someone can learn from what I’ve been through.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I would invite Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Mother Theresa
What’s at the top of your bucket list? A trip to India!
What is the last thing you read for fun & enrichment? “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood,” by Trevor Noah
What’s your guilty pleasure? Eating Godiva chocolates!
Q & A with Ambassador Lewis:
In fall 2017, the KU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences recognized Ambassador Delano Lewis with its Distinguished Alumni Award. It is the highest honor bestowed upon graduates of the College. Ambassador Lewis graduated with majors in political science and history in 1960. His career included roles in government, corporations and public service, including NPR, the Peace Corps and an ambassadorship to South Africa. Here what Delano had to say when receiving the award: