At the heated crest of the Biafran civil was in Nigeria 10 years ago, all the Peace Corps volunteers had to be evacuated. Delano E. Lewis, then a Corps director in Nigeria, drove a Jeep around, dodging vigilante groups and gathering his volunteers. He kept a passport in his shirt pocket so he would not be mistaken for an Ibo in Housa territory or a Housa in Yoruba villages.
"In the final days of the evacuation, we didn't linger anywhere but I never dodged any bullets. The directors left on an open-deck barge. We gathered up all the AID booze we could. But that was not protection against the mosquitoes which ate us up," says Lewis, with a clap of his hands, not at the memory of mosquitoes but in a gesture that the job eventually was accomplished.
That's the fundamental points of Del Lewis; he gets the job doen. That's the reason Washington Mayor-elect Marion Barry selected Lewis to orchestrate his transition to power. That's the reason AT&T, in surveying efficiency in its gigantic conglomerate, pinpointed Lewis' community affairs department at C&P as one of the best-managed.
While danger (and controversy and gossip and jealousy) doesn'4t dog his sensible black cordovan heels, talk of the C&P presidency does. Right now he's an assistant vice president. "The future is unlimited for Del. It really is, he's young (38) and recognized," says Charles Weikel, a company general manager who hired Lewis six years ago.
But right now, he's also the transition magician, breaking ideas of 1,000 transition workers into substantive programs, conducting interviews for top jobs in the new government with Barry and rounding out the small Combo that advises Barry with his own broad constituency.
"Marion never sleeps," says Lewis, more than a hint of admiration for his former political opponent in his discjockey drum-roll voice. He had just left Barry in his shirtsleeves in a corridor. Neither one showed any strain of the countdown leading to the Jan. 2 Inaugural.
Or the sense of adventure or the reality of close scrutiny as this group of black leadership takes over at a time when urban efficiency is on trial. And, simultaneously, black elective politics is suffering some setbacks.
Easing a muscular, tall basketball-player's build onto a sofa in a hurriedly borrowed office, Lewis conceals any frustrations of the transition process, the endless employment requests, under a full-fleshed face of relaxed, deep lines and steady eyes.
As he speaks of the new government, he speaks of system. The cover of a businessman, corporate jargon and ways are the manner of Del Lewis, often detached, always sober, persuading with facts and words not emotions. "I am always telling him he was born with a briefcase," says Gayle Lewis, his of 19 years.
Del Lewis, say many, from the Archdiocese of Washington to the Board of Trade chieftains, is one of the brightest of a new generation of local political forces. Lewis' present launching pad is unusual for a black, a utilities company, but he has been a federal attorney, a congressional aide and is a leader in several arts, civic and church groups.
Lewis moved to Washington in 1961 from Kansas, where he grew up and earned his law degree. After a year with Robert Kennedy's Justic Department, he moved over to the then-new Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. After five years with the Peace Corps, he worked for then-Sen. Edward Brooke and later joined D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy's first congressional staff. Then as home rule necessitated increased contact with the local government, C&P tapped him for that job. In the first City Council election in 1974, Lewis ran for an at-large seat and was defeated by Marion Barry and Dougias Moore.
In that time Lewis has lost some of his Midwestern idealism. He has toughened up, remembers the bruises from politics but still can't wiedl the hatchet. Politics has been a pull from the time he turned down a Peace Corps assignment in the Far East to go to Capitol Hill, but now he has compromised the desire to be a political powerbroker and a corporate czar.
"I'm headed back to the phone company," sakys Lewis. His tone is convincing. "Marion knows I have a career, but I will be available. Right now, though, electerd pollitics is not in my future."
Once Del Lewis was a hellfire Baptist. Now he is a less-than-brimstone Roman Catholic. Dancing broke his bond from the Baptists.
From the time Lewis was 7 years old, he pursued tap dancing at his mother's instence. Eventually the dity evolved into a pleasure and employment. When he was 16, he won a dance contest, appearing on a local Kansas City teen show, and the wreath of the church deacons reverberated throughout the Lewis household. "We had a family meeting. I told my parents I didn't what to apologize in front of the church congregation. They supported me totally," recalls Lewis.
He kept on dancing, tapping around the Midwest Big-Eight college circuit, through dances and basketball games. Eventually he found a church that fitted in with all his interests. "The Catholic Church gives me a personal kind of religion. It gives me a real integrated life of family, home and school." save Lewis.
When Lewis stacks up his priorities, his family ranks with with hid career. Even edges it out a little. They're the reason he has taken a leave from politics. With one son a senior at Gonzaga High School, and three more finishing high school in the next seven years, plus a modest, children-worn house on McKinley Stree NW, private industry does offer a more comfortable salary. Also, Gayle Lewis is blunt aboiut her distaste for politics.
When he ran for City Council, the Lewises made a pact: She wouldn't have to participate. "I would have been misrepresenting my feelings," says Gayle Lewis, also a Kansas-bred Roman Catholic who has never used her economics training directly but has taught English in Uganda and works with a group of Lorton inmates. "After Delano's campaign we spent a year putting our lives back together. He decided not to get that involved again at my expense."
When Lewis decided to work unofficially for Barry in the mayoral campaign, his wife insisted on a curbing of physical contribution, as well as intellectual time. "My greatest contribution to Marion's campaign," says Gayle Lewis, "is that I didn't bitch at Del for the thought time it tookf away from the family."
During his high school and University of Kansas years, Lewis always wanted to be a lawyer and, two years after the '54 Supreme Court decision, entered the University of Kansas, and later Washington School of Law.
When the Lewises moved to Washington in 1963, they knew fewer than five people. "We have always thought that change was exciting, anything new," says Gayle Lewis. As Lewis was finding his way through the Justice Department's internal security division, an old friend, Samuel Jackson, was appointed to the EEOC. "On the day Lyndon Johnson appointed me, Del called and said, 'I heard about your appointment and I would like to work for you.' We formed a good partnership," remembers Jackson. On the day the EEOC offices opened, 2,000 complaints were waiting.
As he reviews his career, the EEOC is the one experience that seems to have left a stinging aftertaste. "I found the agency very frustrating. The politics were often cutthroat and the people often insincere toward the discrimination cases," says Lewis glumly. The Peace Corps became an enriching interclude.Then Lewis got involved in the district of Columbia's new game of elective politics.
Now Del Lewis is sought after."His reputation precedes him," says a member of the National Symphony local board which recruited Lewis. And he's sought after because he's a friend of the new mayor, because he's a vice president of one of the city's most important companies, because he's president of the city's only umbrella group for the performing arts, the Greater Washington Cultural Alliance, and because he's the father of four talented magicians. But, more than anything, because he has a state, prudent personality.
"He has a certain ingenious attitude, even when he is wrong," says advertising executive David Abramson. "He thought he was going to straighten us out when we did Fauntroy's first campaign, but he learned. That's the tremendous thing about Del -- his learning-curve capability.His naivete quickly become experience.'
Through Fauntroy, Lewis met Barry. In 1974, Lewis, who by then had been with the phone company for two years, beat Barry in Ward 3 of the City Council at-large contest and raisd more money than any other candidate. "My weakness was name recognition. It was a good campaign and I don't remember Marion and I hitting heads on any issues," says Lewis. Yet, there's a remorse in his deep voice as he talks of that campaign. "Well no one likes to lose. It was a growing experience. If I set out to do something, I like to get it."
With a base in the political, business and church community, Lewis also expanded into the arts. For five years, he has been president of the Capital Ballet board, efficiently patching up a dancers' strike against the management that threatened to destroy the now-vital company. When the Arts Alliance was formed, Lewis was the one who brought all the factions -- big guns, little groups, blacks, whites, urban, suburban -- together and became its first president.
"Del heals rifts," says an Alliance officer. "He's nonstuffy and amazingly attentive to small groups. there are times when he could spend time getting points with Roger Stevens but he doesn't alienate anybody to make himself look important."
James Hudson, an attoney who has been opposite Lewis politically from the Fauntroy favorite-son campaign for Marion Barry, assesses Lewis' appeal.He targets why Lewis is one of Washington's important young men. "He's honest, he has impeccable integrity. When you talk to him, you don't have the feeling he's holding one of the cards back," says Hudson.
"Plus he's little self-effacing, so he survives."