Lee Iacocca remembered for life-long generosity to Lehigh

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Lee Iaccoca, ’45, passed away this summer at the age of 94 years old. Iaccoca continues to have a significant impact on Lehigh’s community with his numerous contributions to the campus. (Courtesy of Lehigh University)

Kira Mendez saw Lee Iacocca for the first time in a few years at a meeting that discussed the variety of programs Iacocca helped launch at Lehigh. The Iacocca Institute director wasn’t sure if Iacocca would recognize her.

“Well of course I remember you,” he later told her, and the two proceeded to have an “engaging conversation.”

Mendez said she remembered Iacocca for his personable nature and genuine desire to get to know people. 

“When you were in his presence…. You always had his 100 percent attention,” Mendez said. “You’re talking to him, and you get this feeling (that) you’re the only person in that conversation with him, and that to me was pretty extraordinary.” 

Iacocca’s legacy, following his death this past summer at 94 years old, is reflected through his generosity toward Iacocca programs, which continue to affect students and the Lehigh community, and through his influential presence in the automobile industry.

The Allentown native, who helped develop the Ford Mustang and revived Chrysler as CEO, graduated from Lehigh in 1945 with an engineering degree. But even throughout his rise to prominence and success, Iacocca committed to giving back to the university. 

Iacocca’s involvement with the university after his graduation led to the expansion of the campus both in its physical size, with his donation to purchase Mountaintop Campus in 1986, and in Lehigh’s reach, by helping to found the Iacocca Institute in 1988 and the Iacocca International Internship Program in 2011.

“Something that’s really important is in the field of international education, Lee Iaccoca had the vision before we even knew how prevalent and important experiential learning was going to be,” said Carol Strange, the inaugural director for the Iacocca International Internship Program. 

The international internship program, which grants accepted students the opportunity to intern abroad during the summer, is fully funded by Iacocca’s matching-gift endowment of $10 million and involves additional donors. The program has sent 586 students to 50 different countries since its inception, focusing on students with higher financial need and who have never been abroad.

Kevin Basek, ‘14, ‘15G, left the country for the first time when he went to Prague, Czech Republic, as an Iacocca intern the summer before his senior year. Basek, who majored in mathematics for his undergraduate degree and received his master’s degree in economics, studied social inclusion and the integration of the Roma people into Czech society as part of his internship. 

“Lee Iacocca brought the university to other people who previously hadn’t seen this university before,” Basek said. “I’d like to just say thank you for the opportunity he provided to change lives and … to benefit so many students who followed in his footsteps at Lehigh University.”

Strange said she meets with each student before and after the completion of the internship program. She said the two main takeaways from students’ experiences are an increased sense of independence and greater confidence.

Basek said the program taught him how to interact with people from various backgrounds and gave him the confidence and comfort to communicate professionally with others in a different country.

“I’ve had several students say that this was the most meaningful part of their four years at the university,” Strange said. “It has significant impact, and students have appreciation because it is funded…it was Lee Iacocca behind it all… he had this idea before it was even something that was known to be popular for students demanding workplace experience.”

Though the Iacocca International Internship Program is exclusively for Lehigh students, the Global Village program — launched in 1997 as a major program of the Iacocca Institute — has involved 2,200 university students and professionals who range from 18 to 58 years old and represent 140 countries, Mendez said.

Mendez said each year, between 60 and 90 Global Villagers come together on campus for five weeks as a part of a leadership initiative to empower other globally-minded individuals through community service and collaboration. The alumni network stretches across the globe and Villagers actively mentor the program’s next generation. 

This program, Mendez said, was a product of Iacocca’s desire and vision to cement Lehigh’s reputation as a destination for international learning. 

“Lee’s vision of leadership — as being cross-disciplinary, as being about people, as being global, valuing our similarities and working across our differences — infused the development of that program and the growth of the (Iacocca) Institute through that time,” Mendez said. “His personal vision on leadership has really had — along with his personal relationship with Lehigh — a tremendous impact with our direction of the university.”

But beyond his worldly aspirations for Lehigh’s future in experiential learning, Iacocca remains remembered for his close connections to his family and community.

Strange said even with all of his success, he continued to value family over money, which reinforced his true priorities.

Mendez said Iacocca’s connection to Lehigh extends throughout his family. She said his family continues to be involved and supports the university.

Strange said she hopes students will learn from Iacocca to not focus solely on money as a byproduct of their education and experiences at Lehigh. Though making a living is a significant aspect of a chosen career path, she said Iacocca demonstrated how forming relationships, maintaining connections and giving back were more important.

“Pursue your education with the greatest effort possible, and then make something of it even if it’s not exactly what you think you would be doing…being a philanthropist actually comes back tenfold,” Strange said.

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