(picture courtesy of the Old North State Council's article at Wikipedia)
This past Monday night at the meeting of the Rockingham County Board of Education, I spoke during the public comments portion of the evening. Board Chairwoman Elaine McCollum had already shared some very wonderful words about Gene Saunders, and I felt led to talk about Gene too since I had been one of his students. But for the past few months I'd already had it in mind to come to this particular meeting so that I could honor someone else. It just so happened that instead of one person who made a tremendous impact on my life, I wound up going to the podium and talking about two.
After I spoke for a bit about Gene and how much of a difference he had made in my life, I told the board and everyone present that I had felt led to make note of the fact that the birthday of the man who had perhaps done more to further education than anyone else in Rockingham County was this week.
So it is that today, January 19th, 2008, is the 100th birthday of James Allan Lewis. Or as he was better known to Lord only knows how many people who he came in contact with over the years: "Doc Lewis".
He was without a doubt the most memorable character that I have ever known in my life.
And when I say that he was a "character", that is most assuredly not an understatement.
This is the man who defined the meaning of the term "larger than life". From the very first time that I met him, when I was just an 11-year old Boy Scout in 1985, I knew that God must have broken the mold when He made Doc Lewis. If anyone ever pitched a movie about his life to some Hollywood studio, he or she would probably be laughed out of the office and escorted off the premises by armed guards, because nobody could have lived a life like that... could they?
Well, Doc did.
Allan Lewis was born in Danville, Virginia on January 19th, 1908. A few years later World War I broke out, and Doc once told me about how on the day of the armistice in November 1918, that the whole town of Danville celebrated and were doing things like setting off fireworks and dragging an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm II through the streets, while people spat on and made rude gestures toward it.
In the years prior to the Great Depression, Allan Lewis was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, and then attended Lynchburg College. He then went on to pursue graduate work at Columbia University in New York City, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (which a lot of people will no doubt appreciate that Doc was a life-long avid fan of the Tarheels), and also at UNC-Greensboro.
And during all of this time, while he was pursuing his studies in the field of education, the young Allan Lewis... had an interesting life.
When he was in New York City, Allan became heavily involved with Broadway theatre and the vaudeville stage. How involved? Let's see: I know that Doc became friends with George Burns and Gracie Allen early in his life (yes, that George Burns and Gracie Allen). I know that Doc took Katherine Hepburn out to dinner at least once (yup, that Katherine Hepburn, too). Doc mentioned so many names of famous people over the years, that there's no way to compile a full list of who he knew and who knew him.
And then there's the story of about how he and some friends put their money together to buy a Model T car so that they could drive to New York City for the World's Fair. Doc told me that so many times on the way over there one (and sometimes more) of the tires got a flat... so they had to stop and put the tire in some water to try to find the leak and then patch it up before going on.
Well, there are many more adventures from the early days of Allan Lewis that I've heard over the years, but I would be sitting here 'til noon tomorrow if I were to try to compose them all for this blog entry.
In 1934, Allan Lewis became the principal of Sadler Elementary School in Reidsville. He served for some years there and then was made the principal of Wentworth Consolidated Schools. And in 1948, he was made superintendent of the Rockingham County School system. Keep in mind that the average term for most superintendents these days is about 3 years at any one system.
Lewis stayed on for 22 years. And in that time he not only guided the system through the turbulence of the post-war years, he also vigorously pursued the construction of new schools, especially a new central high school for the then-existing system. A few years after he retired, Rockingham County Senior High School opened its doors, including those for the J. Allan Lewis Auditorium.
But as magnificent and highly-renowned a career as Allan Lewis had as an educator, some will argue quite convincingly that his fame as an advocate for the Boy Scouts of America was far, far greater.
It was at the original Boy Scout camp for the Cherokee Council near Reidsville that Allan Lewis received the nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life. Lewis volunteered to work at the health lodge, and very early on in his time there the boys started calling him "Doc", because he was the one who patched them up. The name stuck.
Doc was an active Scouter for well over 60 years. And he was still working at the health lodge for most of that time, both at the original Camp Cherokee near Reidsville, and then in 1968 when the camp relocated to Cherokee Scout Reservation not far from Yanceyville in adjoining Caswell County.
(At this point I could also talk about "the hermit" who lived deep in the woods near Cherokee Scout Reservation, and how Doc and some other delegates were shot at while trying to visit him one day, and then that the hermit died before the camp was to open and how his pet wolves went nuts and how they found the hermit's bones at his cabin... and supposedly the cabin was haunted... but that's a story for another time.)
Throughout most of his time in the Boy Scouts, Doc became especially involved with the Order of the Arrow, the honor society within the Boy Scouts of America. One of Doc's proudest possessions was a photograph of himself sitting next to E. Urner Goodman, the founder of the Order of the Arrow. Doc was also friends with Carroll A. Edson, the co-founder of the Order.
I became a member of the Order of the Arrow in 1987. Doc told me on the night following my Ordeal that he was proud of me and that from now on, we were symbolically brothers. I don't know if he ever knew how to so many young men, he was far more than their brother: he was also their surrogate grandfather, and maybe even father to some.
I went to two national Order of the Arrow conferences with Doc: one in Fort Collins, Colorado and then a few years later to one at the University of Indiana. Going on a trip with Doc was an absolute hoot! Everywhere we went, he seemed to know something about the place. Chalk it up to him being such a widely-traveled guy: Doc had visited every state in the union except Alaska, and he had visited many countries overseas during his long career. He was also fun to have on the road or on the flight over for all of the hilarious jokes and stories that he would tell us.
Both at the Reidsville camp and Cherokee Scout Reservation, Doc not only was the camp medic, he also put the theatrical knowledge that he picked-up while working on Broadway to use. Among other things, during ceremonies for the Order of the Arrow he would sometimes have a Scout swim across the lake... while carrying a lit torch. He was also experienced with makeup and costuming.
For most of his career with the Cherokee Council, and later the Old North State Council after the Cherokee Council merged with a few others in the early Nineties, Doc served as the council's "Goodwill Ambassador" to the world. He was on the executive board of the Boy Scouts of America for 40 years, and was known not only throughout the United States but around the world for his work with the Boy Scouts. There was one fellow in particular who also was heavily active in the Boy Scouts movement, who Doc not only worked alongside for many years but also became very good friends with. You might have heard of him: his name was Norman Rockwell.
Doc was also a president of Rotary International of Reidsville. He was also involved with several educational organizations and at one time served as president of the Rockingham County Historical Society.
He was certainly an active, involved person. But you know... I still haven't really touched on Doc's personality at all.
Doc Lewis was always "turned on". He probably possessed the most indomitable spirit that I ever met in anyone in my entire life. Imagine Groucho Marx as a Jedi Master, and that was Doc Lewis. He was simultaneously the wisest sage that you'd ever come across and this wise-cracking comedian who would never fail to make you smile. And I don't know if it's really my place to share this or not, but it has to be said: Doc Lewis was the master of the art of the dirty joke. But not "dirty" in the modern connotation at all: Doc was sly and clever with innuendo and subtle terms, the way that such humor was done before it degraded into "gutter comedy". There's one joke of his that I am horribly tempted to share here, and to this day it's probably the funniest joke I've ever heard... but if I were to post it here, Google would not only wipe out my blog but it would also send goons to my house to apply a sledgehammer to my typing fingers so as to make sure that it never happened again. But trust me, it's hilarious (and also rather clean, believe it or not).
Doc was also a dancin' fool. Even well into his eighties, he had a spring in his step lacking in most guys just in their twenties and even younger. Anyone who ever saw him prancing in the amphitheater at the Cherokee Scout Reservation will not ever forget the sight of him hopping across the stage as he encouraged everyone to sing.
There's so much about Doc that I could share here, and I honestly don't know what I could possibly say about him that could do his memory the full justice that it deserves. He was just an... amazing person to have known. But I guess I need to wrap this up, so I'll relate just a few of my personal memories about Doc.
As I mentioned earlier, we met in 1985, when he came to a meeting of our troop one night. Later that week I was at a Boy Scout camporee and that's where Doc and I really started getting to know each other. To this day I'll never know why he took such a special shine to me, but he said many times over the years that he was really glad for our friendship. Maybe it's because Doc really was an offbeat person, and I was a much younger offbeat person that looked up to him as a model and an example that yes, it was okay to be a bit off-kilter.
I can also attest that I was one of the Scouts that Doc "patched-up" at the health lodge at the Cherokee Scout Reservation. It happened my very first day at the camp: I got a horrible splinter embedded in my foot on the dock at the lake. Two other Scouts had to hold me up as I literally hopped a half-mile to the health lodge. Doc propped me up on the table, took hold of my foot and pulled the splinter out with some tweezers. So yeah, I was one of Doc's patients. I honestly don't think that you could say that you had the full experience at Cherokee Scout Reservation until Doc fixed you up in the health lodge.
Doc was on my Eagle Scout board of review, and I'll always feel honored that he took part in that. He also came to the ceremony a few months later when Jamie Revis and I - the only two out of dozens of Boy Scouts who had been part of our troop with us that whole time - received our Eagle Scout rank. I've a picture somewhere of Doc leading us in the Scout Oath. That was one of the proudest moments of my life.
And then a few years later came one of the more hilarious experiences that I had with Doc. One day in the summer of 1994, I drove to his house and picked him up for lunch. We went to the Libby Hills restaurant here in Reidsville, which is where I was working at the time. Our waitress was this girl who, yeah I'll go ahead and say it: she was very sweet and very beautiful. And Doc thought so too...
"Who's she?" he asked.
"That's (name removed to protect privacy)," I told him.
"She's nice!" Doc said. "Do you like her?"
"Ummm, well... uhhh... well I don't think she's seeing anyone right now," I told him. And I'll admit it: she was that nice kind of girl that I had been hoping and praying to wind up in a relationship with. I found out a few years later that she had gotten married and was doing well, so I'm glad that she ended up happy.
But at this moment in July of 1994, Doc was hellbent on playing matchmaker.
"Here, let me leave the tip. If she asks, tell her that you wanted to do this for her."
Doc Lewis pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and plunked it on the table!
I tried, honestly I tried, to stop him. But Doc wouldn't have it. He wanted me to do something to impress that girl and make her notice me. And oh yeah she did notice. "Chris that was crazy! You didn't have to do that!" she told me a few nights later at work. I told her that my friend Doc had left it for her, and that he thought she was a good waitress and that she was a really sweet person. Yeah, I know: I didn't quite follow-through on Doc's plan. But I'm glad that she got to know that it was Doc and not me who left it for her. And in my own way, I did tell her that I thought she was a good person, too. Maybe that didn't lead to something that Doc might have had in mind... but that was two people who were made a little happier, however briefly, because of it. And knowing that made me happy, too.
So much else that I could write here, about Doc. All these years later after first meeting him, the impact he made on my life still can't be fully measured.
He was one of the greatest people that I never knew. And one of my dearest friends.
James Allan "Doc" Lewis passed away on December 8th, 2004, just over a month shy of his 97th birthday.
He was more than a friend. He was more than a symbolic brother. He was the grandfather that I never had.
I still miss him. And I still love him.
I know of no better way to wrap this up, and to honor his memory, than with a song. It's one that Doc Lewis himself wrote. It's the official camp song for Cherokee Scout Reservation, and has been sung at places such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Wright Brothers Memorial.
Here it is, sung to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad"...
Until Gabriel blows his horn, we'll wait to see you again Doc.
"The Eyes of Cherokee"
(words by Allan "Doc" Lewis)
The eyes of Cherokee are upon you,
All the live-long day.
The eyes of Cherokee are upon you,
You cannot get away.
Do not try to escape them
At night or early in the morn.
The eyes of Cherokee are upon you,
'Til Gabriel blows his horn.
(By the way, January 19th is also the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe and Robert E. Lee. Doc was always proud of the fact that he shared his birthday with those two historical figures :-)