Lee Iacocca

Lee Iacocca '45 remained a loyal supporter of Lehigh throughout his spectacularly successful business career. (Photo by Douglas Benedict)

Lee Iacocca '45, Business Icon and a 'Great Son of Lehigh,' Dies at 94

The influential business leader and philanthropist was broadly recognized as a symbol of American ingenuity and resilience.

Story by

Linda Harbrecht

Lido Anthony Iacocca ’45—better known to millions of Americans as Lee Iacocca—a dedicated philanthropist, visionary automaker and influential business leader who was considered one of the greatest CEOs of all time, died at his home in Bel Air, California on Tuesday, July 2. He was 94 years old.

Iacocca died from natural causes, according to news reports that confirmed his passing with Iacocca’s youngest daughter, Lehigh trustee Lia Iacocca Assad.

Through Lee Iacocca’s legendary leadership of Ford, where he was the driving force behind the iconic Mustang in the mid-1960s, and his well-publicized turnaround of the Chrysler Corporation in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he was broadly recognized as a symbol of American ingenuity and resilience.

Lee Iacocca stands in front of Mustang

Iacocca was the driving force behind the iconic Mustang in the mid-1960s.

“Lehigh lost not only a great man but a great friend as well,” said Lehigh President John D. Simon ’19P. “His dedication to Lehigh was unwavering throughout the years. His extraordinarily successful career served as an inspiration for generations of students. And, through his vision for the Iacocca Institute’s Global Village and the Iacocca International Internships, Lee made it possible for the world to come to Lehigh and for our students to have life-changing educational experiences that prepare them to thrive on the world stage. He leaves a strong and enduring legacy at Lehigh.”

Lehigh Board of Trustees Chair Kevin L. Clayton ’84 ’13P called Iacocca an "extraordinary business leader, whose notable accomplishments were surpassed only by his generosity."

Clayton added: "Lee Iacocca served as an inspirational industry icon for decades, and his name has become synonymous with a legacy built from grit, determination, focus and an unwavering sense of optimism and pride for this country and what we can accomplish. Throughout the years, he's remained very loyal to Lehigh and we are grateful for his efforts to give back to an institution he clearly loved."  

Assad noted her father’s pride in his lifetime association with Lehigh, both as a student and a philanthropist. “He was a visionary in understanding that global experiences impacted individual lives, as well as the business world,” she said.

Among his closest friends at Lehigh was international business expert Dick Brandt, who led Lehigh’s Iacocca Institutenow in its 31st yearfor several of those years. He also served as director of Lehigh’s Global Village for Future Leaders of Business and Industry. Brandt recalls Iacocca as a “good friend and mentor” during his time at the Iacocca Institute, who shared his vision for the Iacocca Institute at Lehigh and the Global Village program when Brandt visited him at Iacocca’s home in California.

“One meeting stands out in my mind where he discussed the beginnings of the Iacocca International Internship program,” Brandt said. “His financial support, and many others who joined him, allowed that program to become a signature piece of the global footprint of Lehigh University, and so important to hundreds of Lehigh students.  My thoughts are with his sister Delma, and his daughters, Lia and Kate. He will be so missed.”

The Iacocca Global Village program was launched in 1997 by former Institute director Prof. Roger Nagel, who worked closely with Iacocca and then-Lehigh President Peter Likins on the new venture. Now in its 23rd year, the program has more than 2,200 alumni representing 140 countries, on all continents. Collectively, Institute programs have alumni in 150 countries. This summer’s Iacocca Institute programscurrently in progress on the Lehigh campusinvolve 150 participants from 62 countries.

A Lifelong Allegiance

Iacocca’s long relationship with Lehigh began when he entered the university after graduating from William Allen High School in Allentown in 1942. Ineligible to join the army because of a bout with rheumatic fever at the age of 15, Iacocca focused on his studies, graduating in 1945 with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering.

At Lehigh, he was a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, the Theta Chi fraternity, earned a reputation as a talented debater and was a writer and editor for the Brown and White. After winning the Wallace Memorial Fellowship at Princeton University, he pursued a master's degree there. Though he also studied politics and plastics, Iacocca graduated from Princeton a year later with a master's in mechanical engineering and began his professional career as an engineer at Ford Motor Company.

He remained loyal to Lehigh throughout a spectacularly successful business career that brought him international recognition and acclaim and allowed him to donate millions of dollars to various institutions and charitable foundations around the world.

At Lehigh, he led the fundraising campaign to purchase the 742-acre Mountaintop Campus (which now houses the College of Education and several academic departments and programs) from Bethlehem Steel and jointly started the Iacocca Institute, an organization dedicated to increasing the global competitiveness of American organizations. In honor of Iacocca’s contributions to the university, Lehigh established four Iacocca chairs in 1991one in each collegeas well as the Iacocca Scholarship. He also served as an honorary trustee of the university and was an honorary co-chair of the current $1 billion comprehensive GO: The Campaign for Lehigh, the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history.  

In 2010, Iacocca was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award by Lehigh’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Earlier, he received the Lehigh Alumni Award, the highest honor bestowed on an alumnus, for his many years of service, loyalty and dedication to the university.

Inspiring Young Leaders

In founding the institute named in his honor, Iacocca said his intent was to develop inspired leaders who “are fueled with curiosity, motivated to tackle the toughest problems and smart enough to meet inevitable world changes responsibly.” The experiences offered through the institute, he said, were intended to “open new doorways and to create a focus on future pathways. With the right skills and education, we can lead the way.”

The secret is to live long and enjoy life. Part of enjoying life is giving back. And take it from me, giving back really does make you happy.

Lee Iacocca '45

Iacocca returned to Lehigh in September 2011 at the age of 86 (one of many visits conducted with little fanfare) to officially launch the Lee Iacocca International Internship Challenge. Iacocca pledged to provide up to $5 million in endowment to support a group of international interns each academic year. As a challenge grant, the gift matched funds raised from other alumni and donors for a potential total funding of $10 million.

In introducing Iacocca to the staff, faculty, students and alumni who crammed into the Wood Dining Room in Iacocca Hall to welcome its namesake, then-Lehigh President Alice P. Gast said: “A great son of Lehigh is with us here today. Lee Iacocca has come home.”

At that reception, Iacocca told those gathered that he discovered a few truths over the course of a long and fortunate life. “The secret is to live long and enjoy life. Part of enjoying life is giving back. And take it from me, giving back really does make you happy.”

In Spring 2015, Lehigh announced that 43 donors responded to Iacocca’s challenge to match the $5 million endowment grant, and collectively doubled the fund that will ensure opportunities of real-world global learning for students in perpetuity.

“After this summer, more than 200 students will have enhanced their global leadership skills as a result of our collective philanthropy over the past four years. They will have conducted research, developed sustainability projects and initiated engineering solutions in international destinations like China, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan and Macedonia,” said Iacocca, who firmly believed that international working experiences gave students a serious competitive edge in the job market.

Former Interim President Clayton noted at the time that 40 percent of Lehigh students participate in a study abroad or international internship program. “The generosity of Lee Iacocca and others has positioned Lehigh to stay in the forefront of preparing students to lead in global careers,” Clayton said.

Since the Iacocca Internship program was established, there have been 586 interns, with learning experiences in 50 countries, according to Lehigh's Office of International Affairs.

Lee Iacocca and Deming Lewis in Packard car on Lehigh University campus

Iacocca, left, with Lehigh's 10th president, W. Deming Lewis, in the mid-1970s. They are in the Packard Motor Car Company's first car, the Ohio Model A, made by the company founded by James Packard 1884. The car is still on display in Packard Lab.

A Stellar Career

Iacocca enjoyed a long and spectacularly successful career, which took an unexpected turn when he discovered that he preferred the business aspect of the automobile industry over the engineering component. He entered the sales and management ranks early on, according to his Lehigh biography and, in 1956, he introduced the “56 for 56” plan in the Philadelphia district of Ford. In his plan, consumers made a 20 percent down payment and then paid 56 dollars a month for three years. The idea was so successful that the president of Ford decided to use it in national ad campaigns.

As general manager of the Ford Division, he was credited with introducing the design of the 1964 Mustang. He was on the cover of Time magazine for the first time in April, 1964. Six years later, on December 10, 1970, Iacocca was named President of Ford. During his tenure at the company he was also partially responsible for the Lincoln Continental Mark II, the Ford Fiesta, and the revival of the Mercury brand.

Iacocca’s move to Chrysler came in 1978 following a power struggle with Henry Ford II. He was hired as president for the nearly-defunct Chrysler Corporation, and his legendary leadership would eventually help reverse the firm's fortunes and cement his place in the landscape of American business.

Iacocca's first task was to raise money to fund new projects for the failing company. In addition to the $1.5 billion governmental loan he was able to acquire, he also had to close plants and negotiate with labor unions to accept layoffs and wage cuts. In July 1983, only five years later, Iacocca was able to turn the company around and pay back the entire loan—including interest—seven years before his deadline.

Breathing new life into Chrysler earned Iacocca another cover of Time in March 1983. In addition to Chrysler's new smaller, more fuel efficient cars including the K-car series that replaced the old gas guzzlers, Iacocca introduced the main reason for the company's success: the 1984 T115 minivan. After early resistance, he pushed for mandatory seat belts, interlocking systems, and the installation of airbags.

His TV ad commercials made popular the slogan, "If you can find a better car, buy it." He also engineered the $1.5 billion acquisition of American Motors (AMC) and the Jeep Cherokee model. When Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992, the firm's profits were up and thousands of American manufacturing jobs were secure.

In 1986, Iacocca was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering in 1986, one of the highest honors accorded to an engineer.

After his success with the improvement of the Chrysler Corporation, then-President Ronald Reagan tapped Iacocca to serve as chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Under his leadership, the organization was able to raise nearly twice the $230 million budget it required for the restoration of the two monuments that serve as lasting symbols of the American immigrant experience.

Iacocca agreed to return to Chrysler in 2005 to appear in a few new television commercials. "The pride is back." and "If you can find another car, buy it," were once again used.

Part of the National Dialogue

Iacocca is the author of four books: Iacocca: An Autobiography, one of the best-selling non-fiction hardcover books in 1984 and 1985 (it was republished in 2007), Talking Straight in 1988, “I Gotta Tell You”: Speeches of Lee Iacocca in 1994, and most recently, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? in 2007.

At one time Iacocca was urged to run for President of the United States, and a number of Ford and Chrysler dealers across the country even provided him with initial funds. Although he played an active role in politics throughout his later years through his candid, no-nonsense commentary, it was reported that his family and close friends convinced him not to seek public office.

He has, however, remained a voice in the national dialogue and his sought-after support of candidates crossed traditional party lines. He supported George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, but turned toward Bush’s opponent in 2004, throwing his support behind then-Senator John Kerry. He endorsed New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in his quest for the presidency in 2008, and went on to support former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2012.

Along with his extensive work with the Iacocca Foundation, his later years were marked by the management of two of his own businesses: Villa Iacocca, a wine and olive oil import company that he founded in 1986, and Olivio Premium Products, a sister company that creates healthier, olive-oil based replacements for butter that he founded in 1993 with his son-in-law.

He was preceded in death by his wife, the former Mary McCleary, a Ford Motor Co. receptionist he met in the late 1940s. The couple married in 1956, and Mary died in 1983 following a lifelong struggle with diabetes. Her experience prompted Iacocca to devote much of his own life to supporting diabetes research. He established the Iacocca Foundation, which has raised more than $23 million to fund diabetes research, and the Kids with Courage Foundation, which provides support systems for children with Type 1 diabetes.

He is survived by his sister, Delma Kelachava, two daughters—Kathryn and Lia—and eight grandchildren.

Story by

Linda Harbrecht

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