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Lewis family reminisces at museum tour


For three of the women who loved him most, Reginald F. Lewis' presence is everywhere in Baltimore's newest museum - and not just because his name is emblazoned high on its polished black granite facade.

The $34 million Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture is brand new - it officially opens to visitors June 25. But a tour yesterday is a trip down memory lane for Lewis' widow, mother and aunt.

Finishing touches are still being put in place - cables and scaffolding are everywhere, and during the tour, artist Oletha DeVane is setting up a video installation and soft sculpture on lynching. Around the corner, a woman studies blueprints.

But the visitors have no trouble envisioning the museum as it will look in just a few weeks.

"It's breathtaking," marvels Lewis' mother, Carolyn E. Fugett. "Reginald was everything to me, and I can see a lot of him in here."

How could she not?

A hard-working kid in West Baltimore, Lewis succeeded more than almost anyone would have predicted. The boy's first job was delivering newspapers for $15 a week. At 8, young Reginald decided he would become a lawyer. More than a decade later, after a special summer school session at Harvard Law School for black college students, he became the first person ever admitted to the prestigious law school before he had applied.

In 1987, with the $985 million, leveraged buyout of Beatrice Foods, Lewis, who had built a fortune by then, became head of the largest black-owned firm in the nation.

In the museum's black, red and yellow surfaces (meant to evoke the Maryland flag), Fugett can still find the young boy who she admonished, "You can't spend it before you earn it."

She can still picture the tin can nailed to the floor, his first piggy-bank. And she smiles remembering Reginald's indignation when, at age 6, he authorized his grandmother to buy a birthday present for Fugett - and she later presented him with the bill. "Grandma, what are you trying to do, break me?" he groaned.

"It's all bread cast on the water," Fugett says. "You never know how the crumbs will come back."

Sometimes the crumbs delineate a trail, a clear and specific path. That's how it worked for Beverly A. Cooper, Reginald Lewis' aunt. Cooper heads the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, and when Lewis was dying in 1993, they discussed causes his foundation should embrace.

"We had talked about an African-American museum of culture," she says. "Then, in 2002, I read an article about how the state of Maryland wanted to help build an African-American museum. And they were going to put it in Baltimore, in Reginald's hometown. And then I found out about the partnership they wanted to do with Maryland schools. Education is our foundation's primary mission.

"I had to read the article twice. It was almost like Reginald planned it. It was almost like a sign."

The foundation donated $5 million for the endowment.

For Lewis' widow, Loida Nicolas Lewis, the museum represents "the fulfillment of my work as a widow."

For several years after her husband's death, she had her hands full. First, she had to finish raising the couple's daughters. Leslie, now 30, is an actress and producer. Christina, 24, is a journalist who works for The Wall Street Journal.

Next, Lewis vowed to complete the book her husband had started: Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun? Third, her husband had promised $3 million to the Harvard Law School over a five-year period. Fourth, Lewis, who took over as head of her husband's company, had to pay back the debt amassed when Beatrice Foods was purchased.

Fifth was the creation of the African-American museum.

"It's wonderful," she says. "It gives me goose bumps."

But she hesitates briefly when asked if there's anything else she'd like to accomplish for her husband. "It's not something he wrote down," she says, "but I'd love for there to be a movie about his life. Maybe some day."

As if on cue, she turns a corner and finds herself staring at a blank spot on a wall just big enough for a television monitor. David Terry, the museum's director of collections, tells the visitors that a monitor will broadcast a seven-minute continuous video loop recounting Lewis' life story.

Her face brightens. It's not Warner Bros., but it's a start.

"That's fantastic!" she says. "What a wonderful surprise!"

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