Peter Lewis dies at 80; led insurer Progressive for decades

Peter Lewis, who helped build Progressive Corp. into one of the largest auto insurers in the country and later became the billionaire backer of marijuana legalization, died Saturday. He was 80.

Philanthropic advisor Jennifer Frutchy said Lewis died at his home in Coconut Grove, Fla.

In 1965, Lewis became CEO of Cleveland-based Progressive, a company that succeeded a small operation co-founded by his father in 1937. Lewis held the post for 35 years and was Progressive's chairman at his death. In 2006, Forbes calculated his net worth at $1.4 billion.

Lewis was a heavy donor to a number of causes, including marijuana law reform. He used marijuana for pain management following a leg amputation and helped finance marijuana-related campaigns in Ohio, Washington, Colorado and Massachusetts.

"I don't believe that laws against things that people do regularly, like safe and responsible use of marijuana, make any sense," he told Forbes magazine in 2011. "Everything that has been done to enforce these laws has had a negative effect, with no results."

Lewis' left leg was amputated below the knee in 1998 because of a congenital vascular condition.

An arts patron, Lewis was a trustee of the Guggenheim Museum, stepping down in 2005 in protest of the institution's focus on international expansion.

In 1985, Lewis hired renowned architect Frank Gehry to design a home for him in Lyndhurst, Ohio, according to the Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper. Based in Los Angeles, Gehry is best known for his design of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Lewis never built his house but, over a decade of working with Gehry, he bankrolled experiments with computer technology that enabled Gehry to design the widely acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, according to the newspaper.

Lewis was "a risk-taker, open-minded, generous, quixotic, fun to be with — all of those things," Gehry told the Plain Dealer. "He was sort of an icon for the world, for my world anyway."

Born in Cleveland on Nov. 11, 1933, Lewis graduated from Princeton in 1955 and started working at his father's company as an accountant. He ultimately gave more than $220 million to Princeton.

Divorced from his first wife, Toby, in 1981, Lewis later hired her to oversee his company's large art collection.

Lewis is survived by his wife, Janet Rosel; brother Daniel, of Coconut Grove; daughter Ivy, of Princeton, N.J.; sons Adam of Aspen, Colo., and Jonathan of Coconut Grove; and five grandchildren.

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