Emma Lee Lewis was a closer.
“Every woman out there can use something in my Tupperware bag,” she’d say. “I just need to find out what it is.”
A pioneering African-American seller of the brand, Mrs. Lewis rose to the level of “Diamond Crown” manager, supervising more than 25 representatives. “She’s got a footprint in the Walk of Fame in Orlando,” Tupperware’s world headquarters, said the franchisee she worked for, Leatrice “Lee” Parker.
She died in April 25 at Seasons Hospice of Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago. Diagnosed in 2010 with Stage 4 lung cancer, “Mother fought it for seven years,” even participating in clinical trials, said her daughter Wanda Lewis-Fullmer. Mrs. Lewis, 80, who gave up her Winston cigarettes in 1996, also suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
For her and many women of her generation, Tupperware was a plastic ticket to disposable income and independence. Developed by Earl Tupper, the food and drink containers wound up in refrigerators across America through home parties in which women listened to a sales pitch from friendly female representatives while enjoying a break from home and kids. The company promoted Tupperware as “the nicest thing that could happen to your kitchen!”
With bright colors, fanciful names and inventive shapes and materials, Tupperware seemed to embody a postwar spirit of optimism and aspiration, as well as its stated mission of locking in freshness. Tupperware’s stacking, leakproof “Wonderlier” bowls moved from table to freezer with a lifetime guarantee they wouldn’t crack, chip or peel. Its Cake Taker and “Cariolier” handle enabled bakers to transport homemade goodies without a dent. The company also sold Tuppertoys, utensils and organizational containers.
In addition to commissions, Mrs. Lewis’ Tupperware sales won her the use of company cars, as well as cruise vacations, furniture, luggage, stereo systems and a stay at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Visits to Tupperware headquarters in Orlando also meant side trips for her family to fun spots nearby, including Disney World, Gatorland, Circus World, Cypress Gardens and the Kennedy Space Center.
“She was a true gem of a person — always kind, sweet, loving,” said Kimberly Brown, global communications manager for Tupperware. “Emma served as a top manager in our business, and Tupperware recognized her in many ways for her outstanding accomplishments over the years.”
She was born in Ruleville, the Mississippi Delta hometown of voting rights champion Fannie Lou Hamer. Along with her mother, Louella, and sister, Verline, she worked their farm, each of them able to pick more than 500 pounds of cotton per day. “Bending down, you have a stack on your back,” said Verline Jackson. “If you get tired of bending over, sometimes you would fall to your knees.”
Amid the cotton plants, young Emma looked out for her arachnophobic younger sister. “She would kill the spiders for me,” Verline Jackson said.
“My mother was driving a tractor at 12,” Wanda Lewis-Fullmer said.
Parker, also from the Ruleville area, said that in those days, “You worked hard and you stayed in school because you looked forward to graduating and getting out of there.”
While her brother was serving in the Air Force in Omaha, she moved north and worked as a waitress at the Officers’ Club, her daughter said. At a dance at Offutt Air Force base, she met Richard Lewis, a native of Meridian, Mississippi, and a technician who worked on B-52 bombers. They danced to Fats’ Domino’s “I Found My Thrill (on Blueberry Hill),” which became their song. They married in 1959.
After stints at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire and Kincheloe Air Force Base in Michigan, they settled in Chicago near 86th and Vincennes. Her husband worked as a long-distance technician for AT&T. They joined Seventh Presbyterian Church and sent their six children to church camp in Saugatuck, Michigan, for Bible studies, sailing and art lessons. She also introduced her kids to croquet, badminton and tennis, as well as piano and guitar lessons. And, “the TV was off until the homework was done,” her daughter said.
A believer in the power of positive thinking, she often told her kids, “Yes, we can!” Once she got involved with Tupperware, it became a family affair, with her children helping her pack and make deliveries.
When her kids told her they loved her, Mrs. Lewis replied, “I love you more!”
She enjoyed watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. A talented seamstress, she sewed some of her own clothes, modeling her style on the sleek sheaths of Jackie Kennedy, her daughter said. Her family said she made a creamy and delicious macaroni and cheese.
In addition to her husband, daughter and sister, Mrs. Lewis is also survived by another daughter, Jacqueline Lewis; sons Richard Jr., Ronald, Rodney and Roderick; four grandchildren; half-sisters Irenn and Addis, and a half-brother, Willie. Her brother Augustus and half-sister Polly died before her. Services have been held.