U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, a devoted alumnus and longtime supporter of UCLA whose legacy can be seen across campus, died July 15. He was 86.
Lewis, who graduated in 1956, was responsible for securing more than $500 million in federal aid to rebuild Powell Library and Royce Hall following the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He also helped UCLA secure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build the new Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, which is across the street from the old hospital, after the quake.
Those who knew of Lewis’ history of public service said the roots of his lifelong dedication to it stemmed from his time at UCLA. In 1955, he participated in Project India, a diplomacy trip involving 12 undergraduates. The students’ experience was chronicled in a photo essay in Look Magazine in February 1956.
“I’ve heard that story hundreds of times. It really influenced the trajectory of his life and his interest in public affairs and working to help other people,” said Dave LesStrang, Lewis’ former longtime aide and friend. “He came back from India a changed man.”
Lewis was the longest-serving Republican congressman in California history ultimately rising to serve as chair of the House Appropriations Committee. He also served as chair of the defense appropriations subcommittee. Those who worked with Lewis knew that the conversation would more often than not turn to UCLA.
“He had the mouse pad, the neck ties, anything to do with UCLA,” LesStrang said.
Even Lewis’ bichon frisé-poodle mix was named Bruin, and was a fixture in his Capitol Hill office, and a discerning force when it came to senior defense officials who entered that office.
“The really good ones, they knew Bruin by name,” LesStrang said.
Before his 50 years in public service, Lewis was briefly on the path to become a veterinarian before switching majors to political science, the degree that he received from UCLA.
Lewis was born Charles Jeremy “Jerry” Lewis on Oct. 21, 1934, in Seattle, Washington. He was the youngest of six children. In high school, Lewis was a championship swimmer and maintained his passion for swimming at UCLA and beyond. In a 2003 UCLA article, Lewis is described as frequenting the Capitol pool in his UCLA swim trunks.
LesStrang recalled a time in the early 2000s when Lewis insisted on pulling an all-nighter to drive from Washington, D.C. to New York City and back for a March Madness basketball tournament game because UCLA was playing.
“It was a long day and night but a great memory,” LesStrang said. “He was a UCLA Bruin through and through.”
While Lewis’ love and passion for UCLA ran deep, colleagues can attest to the fact that it did not come at the expense of the greater public good. When presented with a research or innovation issue, Lewis would support what he believed in, even if it benefited other research universities besides UCLA.
“He believed in the power of science and the need for investment in research to better our country, and he was in a position to be able to demonstrate that year after year,” said Jennifer Poulakidas, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for government and community relations.
Scott Sudduth, a longtime friend of Lewis and former head of the University of California’s federal relations office, remembered Lewis as a champion for research and development even at the local level. Lewis made an investment in a small science and technology center in his district — eventually procuring a telescope from NASA for the students to use.
“A lot of members of congress don’t understand the nexus between the investment in research and also how it’s training the next generation, but Chairman Lewis understood that,” Sudduth said.
Among his many accomplishments, Lewis is also known for authoring legislation in the California State Assembly that created the South Coast Air Quality Management District, an agency tasked with improving air quality, public health and environmental justice in communities across Southern California.
Lewis also wielded his standing in Congress to support other Bruins. In the early 2000s, he introduced a resolution to congratulate UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden on his Presidential Medal of Freedom award, the nation’s highest honor for civilians.
But you didn’t need to be a Bruin to receive a friendly greeting from the chairman, said LesStrang, who as a young man met Lewis, at that time a congressman, who made an impression when he told LesStrang to call him “Jerry.”
“Whether you were the president, the Queen of England, or a waitress at the Tune Inn — a local watering hole in D.C. — he treated everyone the same,” LesStrang said.
Those following Lewis’ lead as public servants will likely always remember him as being synonymous with UCLA, Sudduth said. “I remember him on more than one occasion reminding me, ‘yes, I may have attended Berkeley for a while, but be sure everyone remembers I graduated from UCLA.’”
Lewis is survived by his wife, Arlene; brothers Ray and John; four children, Jenifer, Jerry Jr., Jeff and Dan; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The family requests donations to the following in lieu of flowers:
11116 New Jersey St.
Redlands, California 92373
17500 Mana Road Apple Valley, California 92307