Peter B. Lewis was a kind and generous person, yet “a man of contradictions.” That is how Senior Rabbi Richard A. Block of The Temple-Tifereth Israel recalled the founder and former chairman of Mayfield-based Progressive Corp. during his eulogy Nov. 26.
Lewis died Nov. 23 at his home in Coconut Grove, Fla. He was 80.
Hundreds of people gathered at the University Circle and Silver Park campus of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland to pay their respects to Lewis, who was a 50-year member of the temple.
Former Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman; Frank Gehry, a world-renowned architect; American Civil Liberties Union Director Anthony D. Romero; philanthropic adviser Jennifer Frutchy; Progressive CEO Glenn M. Renwick; and Lewis’ brother, Dan, spoke at the funeral.
Block said that among the words loved ones used to describe Lewis were adventurous, generous, innovative, iconoclastic, fearless, driven, inspiring, compassionate, progressive, scrupulously fair, honest, sentimental and strong-willed.
“Peter was a monumental figure, and his philanthropy has affected every dimension of the community,” Block said prior to the funeral. “Probably the aspect of his philanthropy that was of the most immediate service to the Jewish community was the aquatic center and his support of Menorah Park, which have brought healing and help to countless people.”
“The Jewish community is such an integral part of Greater Cleveland, and we’ve all benefitted from his generosity and concern for the area, the arts and education,” Block said. “Even though from time to time he had something of a lover’s quarrel with Cleveland, he continued to be supportive.”
Block noted Lewis’ generosity often extended well beyond what was often reported.
“On a number of occasions, when someone would undergo a personal tragedy – a member of the staff, for example – and we wanted to help in ways beyond what the temple could handle, he was ready to respond,” Block said. “His generosity made it possible for us to be there for people in times of need.
“He didn’t expect to be thanked or recognized or acknowledged in any way. He was there to help people out of the goodness of his heart,” Block said. “The ‘mega-philanthropy’ is well known, but there were innumerable small ways he made a big impact on people’s lives.”
Lewis credited his Jewish heritage for playing “a strong role” in his philosophy of life, the centerpiece of which is “extraordinary openness and impeccable honesty,” he said during a 2002 Cleveland Jewish News interview. Judaism, he added, also reinforces his conviction that “life is now, one day at a time. ... That’s where Jews are pragmatically.”
At different times in his life, two rabbis had an important influence on him, he said. He was always close to his uncle, Albert Lewis, a Reform rabbi in Culver City, Calif., and he became close to Daniel Silver during the last few years’s of Silver’s life.
“Because I’m eccentric, I often have doubts if what I’m doing is right. Dan helped me feel OK about thinking differently, said Lewis in 2002, adding he saw Silver as “an example of dying with dignity.”
Others in the Jewish community praised Lewis’ philanthropy, including Morton Mandel, chairman of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation and fellow member of The Temple-Tifereth Israel. Mandel described Lewis’ giving as “very creative and very generous.”
“He gave away a tremendous amount of money,” Mandel said. “He gave very major gifts. He was able to do that where he felt it would produce change – where it would stimulate and encourage change – and I respect both of those attributes. He will be missed.”
Stephen H. Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, said Lewis was supportive of Federation.
“The cliche of being larger than life was no cliche when it came to Peter Lewis. His creativity, his passion for business and the joy he created through his philanthropy were remarkable,” said Hoffman in a statement. “Peter always remembered his roots. He always generously supported the Jewish community and in his young days was an active leader in the Federation’s annual campaign. His infectious spirit will be greatly missed.”
Lewis often said that “the single most gratifying gift” he gave was to the Peter B. Lewis Aquatic and Therapy Center at Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in Beachwood – a point not lost on Joel Fox, executive director of The Menorah Park Foundation.
“Of course, we feel very fortunate that he helped us create the region’s first aquatic therapy center, which proudly bears his name,” Fox said. “We’re literally in the process of renovating that center and we’re heartbroken he won’t see it.”
In the 2002 CJN interview, Lewis recounted the way in which the project came about. Noticing Lewis swam every day at The Cleveland Racquet Club, then-Menorah Park board president Ed Singer approached him about contributing toward the proposed new $2.5 million aquatic center.
“I said I would give it all, but on three conditions: Don’t solicit me for Menorah again, my name goes on the wall, and I can use the pool any time,” Lewis said. “‘You got it,’ Ed said, and I wrote him a check.”
“It helps hundreds of people every week get back to strength and regain vitality, and he was all about that,” Fox said. “He was an avid swimmer, so this particular thing really hit home for him. We of course are very proud to have that name on Cedar Road every time people drive by Menorah Park.”
That unique mix of straightforwardness and extreme generosity was considered by many – whether in Cleveland or elsewhere – to be Lewis’ hallmark. It was a combination he valued and an approach he relished — a combination by which many will remember him.
Lewis grew up in Cleveland Heights, and attended Princeton University in New Jersey. After graduating from Princeton, Lewis began working at Progressive, built from the company his father co-founded in 1937. At age 31, following a leveraged buyout of his father’s partner, he was named CEO in 1965.
“To be CEO of a growing company required the ability to understand that I didn’t know what I was doing,” Lewis told the CJN in 2002. “I went to work every day not knowing what I’d find.”
Lewis described himself as a risk taker.
“Being honest is a risk most people won’t take,” he said in 2002, noting news surrounding disgraced Enron CEOs making headlines at the time. “Instead they lie, mislead or don’t say anything.” Honesty, he felt, “takes great courage.”
“Mostly the stuff I learned has been by trial and error,” Lewis continued. “I go by my gut, and I am comfortable saying I made mistakes in the process of getting where I am.”
Arguably one of Lewis’ biggest risks – deciding to insure drivers with multiple violations or who owned high-performance sports cars – paid off. He told the CJN he got the idea to insure such drivers in 1956, he wrote $83,000 in high-risk auto insurance. In 2001, Progressive wrote $3 billion in high-risk insurance out of $8 billion overall, according to a previous CJN report.
Mandel praised a successful recruiting program he said Lewis implemented at Progressive.
“He was a very successful builder of a major institution, Progressive, and he did it in many ways – but essentially, what he felt deep in his bones was that great organizations are built by great people,” Mandel said.
David Lazar worked for Progressive in its early years, joining the firm in 1965 and rising to the position of senior vice president of corporate development. The first master of business administration (Harvard Business School, 1963) Lewis hired, Lazar left Progressive in 1976 to become president of Capitol American Life Insurance, another specialty insurance agency based in Cleveland. He now works for Scherzer International, a Los Angeles firm that does background investigations for corporate clients.
Although Lazar went into public accounting after graduating from Harvard Business School, he soon discovered that field didn’t fit him, so when Lewis offered him a job, he jumped ship from Arthur Andersen; Lewis had just taken over Progressive and was Lazar’s first real boss.
“He was high energy, was enjoyable to be with, he was easy to work with, and he was someone that I felt I could count on to do the right thing,” Lazar said. “He was truly a tremendous and positive influence on me because he was the first person I really worked for and he taught me some values that I think I carried forth – the importance of integrity, of hard work, having high expectations, the Golden Rule, the importance of planning and thinking through.”
Lewis held the leadership post for 35 years, during which Progressive – and Lewis' fortune – steadily grew. In 2006, Forbes calculated his net worth at $1.4 billion, according to reports.
Lewis turned his wealth into support for a number of progressive causes, including strong support for marijuana law reform that began after he used it following a leg amputation. Lewis helped bankroll marijuana-related causes in Ohio, Washington and Massachusetts, according to The Associated Press.
In a 2011 interview with Forbes Magazine, Lewis said he first tried marijuana at age 39. He said he found it to be “better than scotch” and later relied on it for pain management.
“I don't believe that laws against things that people do regularly, like safe and responsible use of marijuana, make any sense,” he told Forbes. “Everything that has been done to enforce these laws has had a negative effect, with no results.”
Lewis also spent time as a trustee of the Guggenheim Museum and stepped down in 2005, saying he disagreed with the institution's focus on international expansion. He had been a leading benefactor of the museum, donating tens of millions of dollars, according to The AP.
In addition, Lewis gave generously to Princeton. He donated more than $220 million to the school, where he also served as a trustee for 14 years.
“Peter was a Princeton Tiger of the finest stripe,” Tilgham said during Lewis’ funeral.
Closer to home, Lewis was deeply connected to Case Western Reserve University. The relationship was strained as the Peter B. Lewis Building that serves as home to the university’s Weatherhead School of Management, funded in part by his lead gift of $36.9 million, was about to open for classes.
The building is a conversation starter either due to the controversy surrounding the management of its completion or its attention-grabbing Gehry design.
Lewis – by then chairman of Progressive but retired as CEO – recounted in 2002 how the project came about.
Scott Cowen, then Weatherhead dean, along with Lewis’ friend and former Progressive employee, Norton Rose, solicited Lewis about a building for the business school. Reasoning that his mother had grown up on Magnolia and Ford drives, near the site of the building, and both his parents and his sister attended the university, Lewis eventually consented.
Frustrated by changes in leadership at the university, the business school and on the project itself, which endured skyrocketing construction costs, Lewis halted charitable giving to institutions across Northeast Ohio in an effort to send a message.
His self-imposed ban lasted about a year, and in recent years, his relationship with the university improved.
Lewis appeared at CWRU’s graduation ceremony in 2008, President Barbara R. Snyder’s first ceremony as leader of the university. That year, Lewis received the inaugural President’s Award for Visionary Achievement.
Lewis also spoke at CWRU’s 2013 commencement ceremony on May 19. That day, he also received an honorary degree from the university.
Following Lewis’ death, Snyder said she was “saddened” to learn the news.
“Peter B. Lewis pushed the boundaries of conventional thinking in everything that he did, and left the world better for his passions,” Snyder said in a statement. “He revolutionized the insurance industry, and then went on to help shape the academic and cultural experiences of thousands through his philanthropy. We at Case Western Reserve are deeply saddened by his passing, and profoundly grateful for his contributions to our university and the broader Cleveland community.”
At Lewis’ funeral, Block recounted the advice Lewis delivered to graduates during his CWRU commencement address – words he suggested Lewis himself lived by.
“‘You are the most important person in your life.’ Peter said to invest in themselves and nurture their relationships, to be clear about their objectives and to seek a career that makes them truly happy,” Block said. “The passion to improve and enjoy everything, he advised, will make your life more vibrant and successful. Find work you enjoy and keep playing with the openness of a child.”
Staff Reporter Carlo Wolff contributed to this report.