Peter B. Lewis encourages 2,000 graduates at Sunday’s commencement ceremony

Photo of Peter B. Lewis at CWRU commencementThe man who built a small insurance operation into a national industry standard-setter accepted an honorary degree Sunday from Case Western Reserve University—the alma mater of his mother, father, sister, son, ex-wife, aunt and uncle.

“Today,” Progressive Chairman Peter B. Lewis said as part of his commencement address, “I am exceedingly grateful, honored and happy to … join the family tradition.”

The recognition for Lewis came as 2,000 graduates received degrees in subjects ranging from accountancy to systems biology, from law and medicine to social work and nursing. It also came on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the campus building that bears his name, a sweeping architectural landmark designed by Frank Gehry for the Weatherhead School of Management. Gehry also was on hand for the graduation exercises and joined Lewis in receiving an honorary degree.

Lewis, who met Gehry in 1985 and has maintained a close friendship since, cited the pair’s collaboration as part of his advice to the graduates.

“Find work you enjoy. Have fun doing it. Keep playing with the openness of a child. Experiment with your passions. Frank Gehry and I played and experimented on a house for me and a downtown tower for Progressive,” Lewis recalled. “Although neither was ever built, the process produced a passion to do a project together. The Lewis building [at Case Western Reserve] is a product of our passion.”

President Barbara R. Snyder praised Lewis for his resilience and creativity in business as well as his visionary philanthropy. In addition to the commitments that led to the construction of the Peter B. Lewis building here, he also has supported buildings and programs in education, the arts and other initiatives to advance society.

Lewis encouraged graduates to challenge conventional wisdom and always seek to improve, yet focus on more personal elements as well.

“The more people you love and trust, and vice versa, the better your life will be,” Lewis said. “This is a truth you will learn by living.”

During the ceremonies, Snyder also presented Jane Baker Nord (GRS ’76) with the President’s Award for Visionary Achievement, given to those who have distinguished themselves through exceptional philanthropic service to the university, the world and humanity. She and her late husband Eric supported significant arts initiatives across the region, and also provided funds to establish the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and the conversion of Enterprise Hall—formerly the home of the Weatherhead School of Management—into a hub of engineering education now known as Nord Hall.

Gehry was named the “most important architect of our age” after the 2010 World Architecture Survey. His Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was the most frequently cited when the renowned architects and critics in the 2010 survey answered which works they considered most important since 1980. He is known for designs that incorporate curving, flowing metal to convey a sense of energy and dynamism.

In addition to Lewis and Gehry, op art pioneer Julian Stanczak and international law expert Christine Van Den Wyngaert also received honorary degrees. Stanczak, a Cleveland artist, helped launch op art, and today his work is featured in more than 85 museums and 100 public collections. Van Den Wyngaert is renowned for her work as a scholar of human rights laws and as a longtime jurist on different courts and tribunals of international criminal law. She currently serves as a judge at the International Criminal Court.

Also recognized during commencement was Distinguished University Professor James Anderson, who received the Frank and Dorothy Humel Hovorka Prize. The award honors faculty who have made extraordinary contributions to their academic field and to Case Western Reserve, and is considered one of the highest forms of recognition a faculty member can receive. Anderson specializes in biomaterials and is a member of both the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering.

President Snyder called out one individual not on stage, a graduate receiving his undergraduate degree 74 years after beginning his studies on the campus. Morton L. Mandel completed his degree requirements this spring when he discuss the ideas in his 2013 book, It’s All About Who, with a panel of faculty members. The conversation represented the final piece of his senior capstone project.

“I am delighted to say, he passed!” President Snyder said, then asked Mandel to stand and be recognized as his fellow graduates erupted in applause. “He promises me that the [diploma] will take a central place on his wall—education is that important to him. It is to us as well.”