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Clarence Lewis: A Man of His Word [Postal Life magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Postal Life magazine
November / December 1998
Photo by Kelley Sullivan

WHEN CLARENCE E. LEWIS JR. took over as the new chief operating officer and executive vice president on June 2, he made a promise to himself. It is the same promise made the day he joined the Postal Service in 1966.

“I have always said that when I leave this organization, I
want it to be better than when I came in,” says Lewis.

High on his list of priorities is to ensure the Postal Service continues to be a place where future generations of employees will be treated fairly and have the ability to advance.

Lewis, a 33-year postal veteran, knows about advancement. After attending Norfolk State and Virginia State Universities, he started working as a letter carrier in his hometown of Norfolk, VA. For nine years, Lewis delivered mail to more than 800 families.

“I loved being a letter carrier because I could interact with my customers, and that was rewarding,” he says. “It was one of my favorite times of my career.”

Lewis made an impact on one boy in particular. “I remember this young man liked to play hockey, and he would hide in a field along my route. When I would find him, I’d threaten to tell his mother, and he would beg me to keep his secret. I did, but I also kept an eye out for him.”

Sometime back, Lewis adds with a smile, that boy called to report that he was head of the ROTC at his university and was an honor student. “I think h
called because he wanted me to know he had turned out all right.”

It is that kind of personalized customer service that Lewis says is the key to doing a good job. “The people who trained me taught me that service is our main objective. They told me to do whatever was needed to make sure the customers are happy. I took that philosophy to heart.”

Postal Service executives obviously appreciate Lewis’ dedication. After taking the supervisor’s test in the early 1970s, he was promoted to acting director of Finance in the Norfolk Management Sectional Center (MSC) in 1975, and later became Norfolk’s acting MSC manager/postmaster.

In 1986, he became field director of Marketing and Communications in Richmond and established an open-door policy that focused on teamwork. More than a decade later, the postal employees in Richmond still remember his evenhanded approach.

“Mr. Lewis ensured management and craft worked as one team,” recalls Karen Lipscomb, the Marketing manager for the Richmond District who worked with Lewis when he was in Richmond. “He instilled in us the idea that organization and long-range planning were the keys to success. He always kept everyone up-to-date on all the issues, and his door was always open to his managers with one stipulation. For every problem, we also had to bring at least three possible solutions.”

Lewis served in other management positions before being chosen in 1989 to be one of two regional managers to implement automation in the former Eastern Region. Three years later he was given another opportunity, manager of Processing and Distribution in Los Angeles. After talking it over with his wife, Elaine, who also was a postal employee until she retired in 1996 after 30 years in accounting; the couple decided to seize the offer.

For four years, Lewis and his team put in 12-hour days and worked weekends and holidays to help the once lackluster Los Angeles Performance Cluster become one of the nation’s best.

“It was tough,” says Lewis, “but the hard work paid off.”

Mail Handler Lennard Hammock, Tour 11, LA P&DC Work Center 16, thinks so, too. “Morale among postal employees was very low before Mr. Lewis arrived, but he gave us incentives to encourage us to produce, and I thought he was great. He cared about his employees, but mostly he cared about the USPS. He’s a real professional, and I’m proud to have worked for him.”

In 1997, Lewis was again promoted, this time to the post of vice president of Area Operations in the Allegheny Area. He held that Pittsburgh-based job for less than two years when he was tapped by Postmaster General William Henderson to take over as chief operating officer.

“Who better for this job than Clarence Lewis?” declares Henderson. “I knew someone with his intimate knowledge of Postal Service operations would be an incredible asset. He knows this organization inside and out.”

Lewis’ intimate knowledge of the Postal Service proved invaluable just one week after he arrived in Washington. Along with Henderson and Deputy Postmaster General Michael Coughlin, he was called to testify before the House Sub-committee on the Postal Service.

“I thought I’d just be sitting in on the hearing,” says Lewis. “But when I sat down with Bill [Henderson] and Mike [Coughlin to review the material, they handed me a portion to read. My jaw dropped. At that moment, I wasn’t as confident as they were, but they had faith in me and it worked out well.”

Humility is typical of Lewis, who remains modest on most issues—especially the fact that he is the third highest-ranking officer in the Postal Service, the third largest employer in the U.S. (after the Department of Defense and Wal-Mart).

“Sure, I’m proud to have this job,” he says. “But the truth is that I am just another employee who tries to do the best job he can. I’m happy my superiors saw fit to promote me.”

And Lewis is determined to
make the most of his new job.

“During my tenure, I’m not looking to be personally successful as much as I’m looking to make everyone in the organization successful,” he says. “I’ve always thought that letter carriers, engineers, research and development folks, executives, and all the other departments are all part of one team. This isn’t tennis. We are more like a football team, and we all need to work together. If I can help institute a strong team spirit throughout the entire organization before I retire, then I’ll consider my job well done.”

When it comes time to retire, though, the 59-year-old father of five and grandfather of four says he’ll be ready for a rest. He and his wife have had a commuter marriage in recent years because she didn’t want to move around the country each time Lewis was promoted. She chose to maintain their home in Richmond.

No matter where Lewis worked, though, the couple met on weekends and holidays. Lewis says the time away from each other has been an emotional and financial strain. Yet despite the distance, the couple—married since 1975—remain a strong team.

“Whenever I was presented with an opportunity, Elaine and I sat down and decided together,” Lewis shares. “She has been my greatest supporter. And when I retire, we’re going to take a trip around the world. I promised that vacation to her years ago. And I’m a man who keeps his promises.”


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• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.