Peter B. Lewis: An Original

Peter B. Lewis died suddenly of a heart attack on Saturday at the age of 80. A billionaire chief executive of the Progressive Insurance Company, Peter was a true progressive in his values and his deeds. After his father’s death, Peter and his mother took charge of the company. He became chief executive in his early 30s and built Progressive from a small 100-employee company into America’s fourth-largest auto insurer, with $17 billion in premiums and 26,000 employees. He expanded his market by insuring high-risk customers, deliberately offering price comparisons with competitors, and setting claims promptly. He led Progressive with exemplary transparency.

Peter was a philanthropist extraordinaire, supporting the arts, education, progressive politics, and marijuana legalization. Among his causes were the Center for American Progress, the American Civil Liberties Union, Media Matters, and The American Prospect. He was one of the early principals of the Democracy Alliance, a consortium of donors to progressive causes.

A native of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Peter Lewis became Cleveland’s premier arts funder. He was the New York Guggenheim Museum’s largest individual supporter, a patron of architect Frank Gehry, and the biggest single donor in the history of his alma mater, Princeton University, to which he gave more than $200 million, including $60 million for a Gehry-designed science library. He personally gave $37 million to build the Gehry-designed Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University.

Yet he did not suffer fools gladly, suspending his support for Cleveland institutions when he felt they were being badly run by a stuffy elite. He buried the hatchet in 2012, donating $5 million to the Cleveland Institute of Art and speaking at Case Western’s May commencement.

Long before the era of hip, high-tech entrepreneurs, Peter was something of a child of the 1960s in the conservative business world. His first marriage, to Toby Devan Lewis, ended in divorce in 1971 when he made it clear that he did not believe in monogamy. The two remained close friends. In 1985, he hired Toby to manage Progressive’s extensive art collection. He married his longtime partner, Janet Rosel, only last September.

In his later life, Peter was perhaps best known for his strong support of marijuana legalization. As a corporate executive known for a counter-culture lifestyle, he was profiled in a 1995 piece by Fortune magazine titled, "Sex, Reefer, and Auto Insurance?" He came to marijuana not as a pot-head but as one seeking relief from pain. A longtime vascular condition led to the partial amputation of one leg in 1998. Peter found that smoking marijuana could help manage his pain.

Two years later, landing at Auckland Airport in New Zealand to watch the America's Cup races, he was arrested at Auckland when drug-sniffing dogs sniffed out pot in his briefcase. After spending a night in jail, Peter pled guilty and was released. In lieu of a fine, he made a donation to a local drug-treatment center.

Peter soon came to believe that the illegal status of marijuana was an absurdity, and became one of the leading funders of legalization along with fellow billionaire George Soros. He donated millions to recent state ballot initiatives, and lived long enough to see full legalization in Washington state and Colorado, as well as President Obama’s decision to have the Justice Department back off harassing states where local voters approved legal marijuana.

Peter B. Lewis is survived by his wife Janet Rosel and by his brother, Daniel Lewis, of Coconut Grove, Florida; his daughter Ivy Lewis, of Princeton, New jersey; his sons Adam Joseph Lewis, of Aspen, Colorado and Jonathan Lewis of Coconut Grove; his ex-wife, Toby Devan Lewis; and five grandchildren. He spent Saturday, just before succumbing to a fatal heart attack, enjoying a visit from his grandchildren. Funeral services are planned for Tuesday.

In a better world, there would be more corporate executives like our friend Peter Lewis.

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