Alumni Q&A with Delano Lewis, diplomat and executive

The list of positions Delano Lewis has held over his career is lengthy. He’s an attorney who worked for the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a world traveler who served with the Peace Corps in Nigeria and Uganda, and as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, former CEO of National Public Radio, and a public servant and philanthropist whose contributions have been made locally in Washington, D.C., and on a federal level.

After a lengthy and diverse career, Lewis isn’t slowing down. He’s focusing his energy on sharing his experiences with students and adults alike. He’s also compiled his life lessons in a recently published book, “It All Begins with Self: How to Discover Your Passion, Connect with People, and Succeed in Life.”

Lewis, who graduated from high school in Kansas City, Kansas, recently returned to the area to talk to high school students at the Kauffman Foundation. We sat down with him to learn more about his approach to leadership and learning.

Hometown: Kansas City, Kansas

KU degree: Bachelor’s in political science and history (1960)

Current title: Author and motivational speaker

Delano Lewis recently published “It All Begins with Self,” a compilation of his life lessons.
Delano Lewis recently published “It All Begins with Self,” a compilation of his life lessons.

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.

You’ve had a lot of variety in your career, and sometimes people get nervous about switching careers or trying different things. What would you say to someone who is apprehensive about that?  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, and I found that this was something I might be interested in. 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. It’s all about skills. You can get that from a number of ways. In education, the degrees are important, but the experiences, the internships, the studying abroad, all of those things lead to your experience base.

I was talking to some students today at lunch, and it dawned on them that they didn’t have information about careers, about the things they could do. 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.

Some graduates think that getting your degree is the endpoint, that it means you don’t have to learn anything else. Would you agree that you never really stop learning? 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.