Updated: Major Princeton donor and former trustee Peter Lewis '55 dies| Nov 23, 2013
Peter Lewis ’55, former University trustee and donor, died Saturday afternoon at his home in Coconut Grove, Fla., at the age of 80.
Lewis was the former CEO and chairman of auto insurance giant Progressive Insurance. Lewis donated over$233 million dollarsto the University, more than anyone else in modern times, and also supported multiple progressive causes, including the legalization of marijuana.
His donations changed the face of the University’s campus, leading to the construction of the Lewis Library, the current Lewis Center for the Arts and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. His most recent contribution, the new Lewis Center for the Arts, is currently under construction. He joined the Board of Trustees in 1998.
“He was a very fun, interesting, straightforward person,” Katie Hall ’80, current chair of the Board of Trustees, said.
“He will be remembered by both his generosity to the University, certainly to the buildings that bear his name, but more than that, he gave so much of his time and effort to support Princeton,” Hall added.
The cause of death has not yet been released, although theCleveland Plain Dealerreported that Lewis died “apparently of natural causes."
Lewis spent Saturday morning with his grandchildren, who were visiting before Thanksgiving.
Lewis was born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His father, Joseph Lewis, was the cofounder of Progressive Insurance. Lewis graduated from Princeton in 1955 as a Wilson School major. The title of his senior thesis was “The Financially Irresponsible Motorist: A Problem in Practical Politics."
During his time at Princeton, both Lewis’ father and brother died, leaving him to take over the family business. After graduating, Lewis joined Progressive as an underwriting trainee. In 1965, he and his mother completed a leveraged buyout, and Lewis became chief executive officer. In 2000, Lewis retired as CEO while remaining chairman of the Board. During his tenure, the company grew from 100 employees to over 25,000, becoming the third-largest auto insurance company in the United States.
He also donated to other causes, including the legalization of marijuana. In 2000, he wasarrested for drug possession in New Zealand, but he continued to work on pro-marijuana campaigns.
In an interview with Forbes magazine in 2011, he called current marijuana laws“outdated, ineffective and stupid.” The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws estimates that Lewis has spent more than $40 million on the cause since the 1980s, including several million dollars to the recent successful legalization campaign in the state of Washington, making Lewis the largest individual supporter of marijuana legalization. Lewis himself used the drug for pain relief following a partial leg amputation in 1997 that was caused by a congenital vascular infection.
Lewis was also a patron of Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, whom he asked to design the University’s Lewis Library and another library in his name at Case Western University Weatherhead School of Management in his hometown of Cleveland.
For a time, Lewis stopped donating to Cleveland philanthropies, citing mismanagement and the lack of cooperation between civil leaders and the public. However, last year, he donated another $5 million to the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland.
Lewis also donated to the Guggenheim Museum and served as chairman of its board until 2005, when he left after a dispute with the director over the museum's financial management. After leaving, he continued to expand the Guggenheim, opening branches of the museum internationally.
Lewis often said he was“progressive by birth, by nature, by philosophy,”which influenced his contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union, America Coming Together, Media Matters, the Center for American Progress, Third Way, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethicsin Washington and more.
In 2012, Lewis joined The Giving Pledge, an initiative popularized by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that encourages billionaire individuals to pledge at least half their fortunes to charity.
Lewis married Toby Devan in 1955, five days after graduating. They had three children before divorcing in 1981. Last September, he married his longtime partner Janet Rosel.
A funeral is planned for Tuesday in Cleveland.