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Drew Lewis, former U.S. transportation secretary, dies

Drew Lewis, 84, a Norristown High School graduate who became a close ally of Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, died Wednesday from complications of pneumonia.

Drew Lewis (right) served as secretary of transportation under President Ronald Reagan. They were with Attorney General William French Smith (left) at a briefing on the air-traffic controllers’ strike in 1981.
Drew Lewis (right) served as secretary of transportation under President Ronald Reagan. They were with Attorney General William French Smith (left) at a briefing on the air-traffic controllers’ strike in 1981.Read moreAP File Photograph

Drew Lewis, 84, a Norristown High School graduate who became a close ally of Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, died Wednesday from complications of pneumonia.

Mr. Lewis was a self-made millionaire; a business executive, politician, and philanthropist; and a driving force in Montgomery County and Pennsylvania GOP politics. But he was best known for his role as a key Reagan confidante.

He held senior positions in Reagan's 1980 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and in the Republican National Committee.

After Reagan secured the nomination, he had Mr. Lewis initiate the phone call to George H.W. Bush that led to Bush's selection as the vice presidential candidate.

When Reagan won, he appointed Mr. Lewis to a lead role on the presidential transition team, and then as secretary of transportation.

In that job Mr. Lewis met success and controversy.

"His years in Washington, as secretary of transportation, were the ones he liked best," said Mr. Lewis' son Andy, a Haverford Township commissioner.

As secretary, Mr. Lewis helped persuade a reluctant Reagan - who ran on a lower-taxes, smaller-government platform - to support an increase in the federal gas tax, to help rebuild the transportation infrastructure.

But his most high-profile work came when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization threatened to strike and shut down the nation's air system in 1981.

Mr. Lewis personally led the negotiations, eventually reaching a tentative contract agreement with union president Robert Poli. But the membership rejected the terms and went on strike, which the administration saw as a violation of federal law.

After being briefed on the situation by Mr. Lewis, Reagan gave union members 48 hours to return or face termination. About 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers came back - and the rest were fired.

The firings were a defining moment in the Reagan presidency. Former Secretary of State George Shultz called it the most important foreign policy decision Reagan ever made, because it showed Reagan's resolve to the rest of the world - and especially to the Soviet Union.

Andrew Lindsay Lewis Jr. was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Norristown, and earned a bachelor of science degree from Haverford College in 1953. He received an M.B.A. from Harvard University in 1955 and completed postgraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968.

"I loved him, loved him," said David Girard-diCarlo, a former Philadelphia lawyer and ambassador to Austria, and for decades one of the nation's best-known political fund-raisers and strategists for Republican candidates. "I don't usually say things with affection about politicians, because politics is a rough business. . . . But if Drew Lewis gave you his word, you could go to the end of the Earth with it, because it was golden."

Girard-diCarlo served on the governing board of SEPTA when Mr. Lewis was secretary of transportation, which put them in frequent contact.

"He was so bright, and he was a gentleman," Girard-diCarlo said. In an age where party rivalries have turned bitterly personal, "one of the things we miss is the civility that Drew Lewis brought to the table."

At the end of his life, Mr. Lewis lived in Arizona, but his lifelong home was Pennsylvania and in particular Montgomery County.

Politics first became a focus for him in 1960, when his childhood friend Dick Schweiker ran against U.S. Rep. John Lafore in the Republican primary. As campaign manager, Mr. Lewis helped Schweiker win the primary and general election.

He managed Schweiker's successful congressional campaigns from 1960 to 1966 and his successful run for the U.S. Senate in 1968.

In 1974, Mr. Lewis made his one major run for elective office, losing the governor's race to incumbent Milton Shapp. The loss was a blow to Mr. Lewis, his son said, one that took time to overcome.

Mr. Lewis had begun his campaign in 1972 with the playful slogan "Drew Who?", campaigning tirelessly to win the GOP nomination in May 1974. In the aftermath of Watergate, and of Ford's pardon of former President Richard M. Nixon in September, Mr. Lewis was handily defeated in November.

Two years later, Mr. Lewis chaired Ford's Pennsylvania reelection campaign. Ford's intra-party rival was Reagan, who, in a last-minute attempt to swing the Pennsylvania delegation, said Schweiker would be his running mate.

But Mr. Lewis, as head of the 103-member state delegation, honored his word to Ford, assuring him of the Republican nomination.

"My father always liked Reagan, even in '76," Andy Lewis said, "but he felt strongly he made a commitment to support President Ford, and wasn't going to go back on his word."

When Reagan again sought the nomination in 1980, he remembered Mr. Lewis' loyalty, and tapped him for senior leadership positions in both the campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Mr. Lewis left his position as transportation secretary in 1983 to return to a business career, serving as chairman and CEO of Warner-Amex Cable.

"He always believed in surrounding himself with smarter people than himself, and delegating authority," his son said. "Always had a things-to-do list running through his mind. Very goal-oriented and driven."

Mr. Lewis began his years in business with Henkels & McCoy, the engineering firm, going on to serve in executive capacities with American Olean Tile, Simplex Wire & Cable, National Gypsum, and Snelling & Snelling. He also served as trustee - with former Mayor Richardson Dilworth - in overseeing the successful reorganization of the Reading Co., a railroad that went into bankruptcy in 1971.

In 1986, Lewis became chairman and CEO of the Union Pacific Railroad, then chairman and CEO of the parent company, Union Pacific Corp., where he oversaw the merger and acquisition of the Southern Pacific Railroad. He also served on the governing boards of American Express, Ford Motor Co., Gannett Co., and SmithKlineBeecham.

In 1986, Mr. Lewis was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Haverford College, but he was met there by protesters upset over the firing of the air-traffic controllers.

After being awarded his degree, Mr. Lewis spoke extemporaneously about the difficulty of that time and the personal pain it brought him. He concluded, "I think that protest is a very honorable role. . . . I believe in consensus. There is no consensus on this degree. . . . It is with great respect for the college, I return the degree."

Local Republicans recruited him to enter the race for Montgomery County commissioner in 1999, but he quickly dropped out. He said at the time that his family felt a "lesser workload would be in everyone's best interest."

In 2002, Mr. Lewis pleaded guilty to a second drunken-driving offense after overturning his Lincoln Navigator in his Lower Salford driveway. He was sentenced to probation and treated at High Watch Recovery Center in Connecticut.

Mr. Lewis was an Eagle Scout who long supported the Boy Scouts of America, the United Way, Catholic Charities, Ursinus College, and Haverford College.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 65 years, Marilyn Stoughton Lewis; children Karen and Rusty; 14 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

A public memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Feb. 27 at Central Schwenkfelder Church, 2111 S. Valley Forge Rd., Lansdale, of which he was a lifelong member. Burial will be private.

Donations can be made to the Amity Foundation, 10500 E. Tanque Verde Rd., Tucson, Ariz. 85749.