Carolyn Fugett welcomes you into her home as a new friend, almost family. She's warm and friendly and buoyantly energetic at an age she describes as "over 75." She immediately gives you the impression of strength. And she's the matriarch of a family that just seems to keep on growing.
"I am the mother of six children, one deceased," she says. "I have 13 grandchildren, and two greats."
Her deceased child, her first son, was Reginald F. Lewis, an extraordinary entrepreneur who rose from humble beginnings on North Dallas Street in East Baltimore to become the head of the billion-dollar TLC Beatrice International and one of America's richest men. He died with a brain tumor at the height of his success in 1993 when he was 50.
Lewis will be celebrated tonight at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with a gala that hopes to raise $1 million for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. The Lewis foundation gave $5 million for the museum, which is nearing completion at President and Pratt streets.
Lewis would have been 61 last Sunday. His mother sat down to talk about him and her life and her family a couple days later in her comfortable Randallstown home. She's lived here since 1987 with her husband, Jean Fugett Sr. The home is filled with photographs, paintings, drawings and family memorabilia.
"We call our house the heritage trail," she says. "With children of today and yesterday we have to make sure they know their heritage."
She leads the way.
"This is a Reginald here, maybe 20, 21."
His photograph is in a silver frame amid a nest of pictures on an end table.
Another picture shows her and Lewis in Paris on the occasion of her granddaughter Christina's first communion.
Lewis might be first among equals in Fugett's family, but Grandmother's just as enthusiastic about Christina, who has a story on the front page of the Stamford, Conn., Advocate. Christina's a new journalist, graduated just two years ago from Harvard, where her father earned his law degree. Her older sister, Leslie, graduated from Harvard in 1995.
Grandmother is very proud of her whole extended family.
"All six of my children graduated from college and most of them have advanced degrees," she says. Her son, Jean Fugett Jr., is a lawyer, too. He was a pretty good tight end for Dallas and Washington in the National Football League. He earned his law degree from George Washington University while playing for the Redskins.
Reginald Lewis was a first-string athlete at Dunbar High School, where he played basketball and captained the football team. He went to Virginia State University on a football scholarship.
"But he got hurt," Fugett says. "He called me and he said, 'Mom, sports is not for me and I'm going to go academic.' And he put his shoulder to the wheel and that's what he did.
"He worked part-time at different things. He was always ahead of the game."
She's framed his handwritten schedule of his classes at Virginia State. At the bottom he wrote "To be a good lawyer one must study HARD." "HARD" is all capital letters and underlined.
Lewis got into Harvard on sheer drive and intelligence. They all but recruited him before he applied. And he was generously appreciative after he became wealthy. He gave $3 million to the law school, which named its International Law Center after him.
Lewis had homes in New York and Paris and on Long Island, where he moved easily in rarified realms of society. He'd come a long way from the picture that shows him a happy boy with his grandfather and cousins in a backyard on Dallas Street. But much of his ease and elegance may have come from Dallas Street, his mother says.
"My mother [was] Savilla Cooper and my father, Samuel J. Cooper," Fugett begins. "My mother brought quality and presence to you. My father brought elegance to you. So when Reginald was born he was born into quality, elegance, education. ... He didn't develop it. He was born with class.
"So when he bought this business that was international, it fit him like a glove," she says, forcefully. "Because nothing was new. My father was a hotel man. [Reginald] knew what frog legs were. He knew what smoked turkey was. He knew what Dom Perignon was. He knew what good-quality red wine was. Nothing was new. We had it on Dallas Street."
Samuel Cooper worked in various private clubs around Baltimore, places like the Governor's Club on Eutaw Place, and the Suburban Country Club on upper Park Heights Avenue. He served all but formal dinners at home on Dallas Street.
"We never had oil cloth in our house," Fugett declares. "We had table cloths. We had table napkins. We had table settings, always. We had base plates. When my father served Reginald tomato soup, he had a napkin on his arm.
"The quality and the presence of love was always with us. When my son made money it just embellished the situation."
Fugett's father had been a soldier in France in World War I. He and Reginald were very close.
"My father would tell Reginald about Paris as a little boy," he says. "He would sing a little song, 'Over There, Over There!'
"He enjoyed Reginald because Reginald was interested. My father would tell him something and Reginald would sit there and listen. He was a very good listener."
Her father got his grandson a job in the card room at the Suburban Club and taught him another lesson, too.
"He said, 'Don't let a $2.50 hamburger get you in trouble'," Fugett says. "He meant when you work on a job you don't take and you don't steal."
"So Reginald learned those lessons coming up at the knees of his elders. Principles. Dedication. He was a really hard-nosed businessman. But he was a family man."
Lewis repaid his grandfather a bit years later, taking him to the Harvard Club for "a historic, beautiful luncheon," Fugett says. "He just wanted to say thank you to my father."
She worked pretty hard herself during those early years.
"When Reginald and I were just by ourselves," she says, "I worked in Hutzler's in fur storage. You'd put them in and take them out.
"I worked for Calvert Distillery. They had dormitories back then for [apprentices]. I worked early in the morning, making beds, and serving breakfast and stuff like that."
She worked for the Post Office 10 years and for Sears at Mondawmin shopping center. "That was my favorite," she says. "I love people." And she helped Lewis deliver the Afro-American newspaper when they lived on Mosher Street.
Fugett's biggest job was taking care of her family, her husband and six children, says Elliott Wiley, her public relations adviser. Wiley's married to her daughter Rosalind.
"Well, I'll just tell this little story," Fugett says. "My mother came over one day to visit. I had the ironing board up, ironing. I had the mixer mixing, with a cake. I had my dinner on the stove. And I was running down the basement, putting clothes in the washing machine.
"My mother looked at me and said, 'I love ambition. But this is too much. I'm going home.' "
The holiday season brings back memories of Reginald. Even when he was running his billion-dollar corporation he did his own Christmas shopping, often with his daughter, Leslie.
"They would go to Tiffany's and Brooks Brothers and different stores," Fugett says. "Reginald gave me a piece from Tiffany every year. He would select the gifts himself, him and Leslie. Nobody else.
"Then my son came to our house on Mosher Street, I lived on Mosher Street 35 years, and here, every Thanksgiving and every Christmas."