Industrial engineering alum, who died at 94, was influential business leader, visionary automaker, dedicated philanthropist

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 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
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 Institute—now in its 31st year—for 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 programs—currently in progress on the Lehigh campus—involve 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 1991—one in each college—as 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.


Delma Iacocca Kelechava
Delma Iacocca Kelechava, Lee's sister, accepted his ISE Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010.


Linda Harbrecht

This story was originally published on Lehigh News. Read the entire story here.