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Arthur Lewis, who rose from modest beginnings to be a U.S. ambassador, has died

Ambassador Arthur Lewis (left) grew up in New York with his cousin Colin Powell, a four-star Army general and the first African-American secretary of state.

Ambassador Arthur Lewis (left) grew up in New York with his cousin Colin Powell, a four-star Army general and the first African-American secretary of state. | Provided photo

His father was a railroad porter, and his mother worked in a garment factory. But Arthur Winston Lewis, the son of Jamaican immigrants, rose to be a U.S. ambassador.

A career Navy and foreign service officer, he had postings in Ethiopia, Italy, Nigeria, Romania and Zambia before President Ronald Reagan appointed him ambassador to Sierra Leone, where he served from 1983 to 1986.

Mr. Lewis died Jan. 10 at the Westminster Place retirement center in Evanston. He was 92.

He grew up in New York, the son of Marlon “Dottie” and Shirley Lewis, both from Savanna-la-Mar, Jamaica. His father Shirley worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. During summers, his parents sent him and his brothers, Roger and Vernon, to visit relatives in Jamaica, which built strong ties in a family of achievers.

Arthur Winston Lewis (right) and his brother Roger spent summers in Jamaica with their extended family. | Provided photo

And many weekends in New York, young Arthur spent time with his younger cousin, Colin Powell, who would grow up to be a four-star Army general and the first African-American U.S. secretary of state. Powell was once quoted to say, “To do badly in this family would have brought disfavor.”

Mr. Lewis’ daughter Dale Wentz attended Smith College and followed him into the foreign service before becoming an administrator at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka. His other daughter, Dian Cuendet-Lewis, was fluent in French and went to law school in Switzerland, where she practiced family law. His oldest grandchild, Pete Wentz, is bassist for the band Fall Out Boy. His granddaughter Hilary has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago. His grandson Andrew is a digital strategist.

Mr. Lewis graduated at 16 from New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School and went on to Dartmouth College. But New Hampshire wasn’t a good fit. He told his daughter Dale, “I went up there, and I couldn’t relate to it.”

So he returned home, where his father suggested the Navy. He enlisted in 1943, remaining on active duty until the late 1960s, serving in Asia and the Mediterranean and on the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier and the USS Cushing, a destroyer.

Arthur Winston Lewis. | Provided photo

The more he traveled, the more the future diplomat recognized the ties that bring cultures together.

“You’ve got to always read, you’ve got to always understand history because it does repeat itself,” he told his children.

He introduced them to ski lessons and tennis, social currency in many environments, his daughter said.

From 1960 to 1963, he served at a NATO command in Naples, Italy. In 1963, he returned to Dartmouth, where he taught navigation and Navy ROTC and earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s in international relations.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Lewis joined the United States Information Agency, where he expanded minority recruitment, his daughter said. His first assignment was in Romania, where the U.S. government sent the band Blood, Sweat & Tears on a goodwill tour. But when the rock ‘n’ roll excited the crowds, Romanian police clubbed back young listeners and set dogs on them, according to news reports. Mr. Lewis helped broker a truce between the band and government.

Dale Wentz witnessed the scene. ”The guards came in and tried to shut it down, and Dad was able to negotiate some peace,” she said. The tour continued.

Arthur Lewis was a career Navy and foreign service officer. President Ronald Reagan named him ambassador to Sierra Leone in 1983. | Provided photo

After retiring in 1987, Mr. Lewis did consulting work for a company that mined rutile, a titanium ore.

Mr. Lewis, who taught himself to play piano, loved the cool jazz of the Modern Jazz Quartet and pianist Bill Evans.

During his foreign service career, Arthur Lewis (left) met music legend Duke Ellington. | Provided photo

His grandson Andrew digitized Mr. Lewis’ jazz CDs and sold them, using the money to hire musicians to play at Westminster Place. ”Dad was just sitting in the front row beaming,” his daughter said, “I think just reliving those memories from his youth.

“Despite moving around, he had so many rich relationships,” according to his daughter, who said he loved hosting people and feeding them his homemade osso buco along with good wine.

Arthur Lewis (far left) and boxing great Muhammad Ali (right). | Provided photo

“He was very, very proud of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” his daughter said. “When we took Dad to a Fall Out Boy show at the House of Blues about 10 years ago, he remarked with pride as the balcony we stood on literally rocked that he’d never seen anything quite like it — or had a shout-out from the stage before.”

Mr. Lewis donated his African art collection to the Smithsonian Institution, his African textiles to Smith College and his book collection to Howard University.

He was preceded in death by his second wife Frances Lewis, his former wife Dolores, his daughter Dian Cuendet-Lewis and his brothers. Other survivors include five great-grandchildren. A funeral is planned in the spring at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arthur Lewis and great-grandchild Chelsea. | Provided photo