When Best Products, the catalogue-showroom chain Sydney and Frances Lewis founded, made them wealthy their impulse was to give much of their money away. And they did: $9 million to Washington and Lee for its law program, $2 million to Virginia Union University to establish a School of Business, $1.5 million toward establishing a new medical school in eastern Virginia, and other major gifts to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Richmond Jewish Community Council (in support of its local, national, and overseas philanthropic programs). Their friends are unanimous on one point: their absolute unselfishness. "If I had to choose a single characteristic to define Frances and Sydney," says one, "it would be their modesty. They are utterly unassuming, completely natural in small ways as well as large."
They steadfastly refused to step into the limelight themselves. (A newspaper article about them once remarked that they avoid personal publicity as zealously as they collect modern art.) At the press conference to announce their gift to Washington and Lee, they were absent. Although they were in the building, they steered clear of the TV cameras and the reporters. "It's strictly Washington and Lee's occasion," they explained.
They do not encumber their benefactions or use their money to dictate policy to those who receive it. They specify objectives the law program in Washington and Lee's case, or acquisition of paintings and sculptures by young American artists in the case of one of their six-figure gifts to the Virginia Museum. They expect the institution to make all the decisions from there.
Mr. Lewis received his B.A. from Washington and Lee in 1940, then attended the Washington and Lee School of Law, Harvard University's Graduate School of Business Administration, and George Washington University's School of Law. Ms. Lewis, a graduate in French and economics of the University of Michigan, took graduate work in economics at Harvard. He was elected to membership in Omicron Delta Kappa at Washington and Lee; she was elected to the Mortar Board Society at Michigan.
In gratitude for their extraordinary generosity to the law school, Washington and Lee University named the law building, dedicated in 1976, Lewis Hall. Twenty years later, Frances Lewis requested that the name be changed to Sydney Lewis Hall in honor of her husband. The School of Law's Law Center program is named in honor of Frances Lewis.