Leader Blues

Friday, June 16, 2006

TOP STORY>> Veteran alderman dead at 70

By Rick Kron
Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: Robert Lewis, losing a battle with cancer, served on the Jacksonville City Council for 22 years and had just filed to run again.

Jacksonville Alderman Robert Lewis, 70, died Tuesday morning after a long battle with cancer.

To many, his death was a surprise as Lewis, who had ups and downs in his fight for life, felt well enough to file about two weeks ago for another term on the city council.

Visitation will be Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Griffin-Leggett Rest Hills Memorial Park on Landers Road. His funeral will be 10 a.m. Thursday at McArthur Assembly of God.

Alderman Terry Sansing, who represented Ward 2, along with Lewis called him “statesmanlike.”

“We knew he was sick, but kept expecting him to get better. News of his death was a shock,” Sansing said. He called Lewis a very dignified man. “He was deliberate and level headed. He didn’t seek the limelight and when he spoke on the council, we all listened.”

Lewis was first elected to the city council in November 1982, taking the oath of office in January 1983 and served until his death—22 years and 6 months.

When Lewis was elected, he was Jacksonville’s first black alderman. He said issues facing Jacksonville never were black versus white issues. “Our government has been very cooperative across the board,” he said in a recent interview, “No heated black or white issues.”

“It’s been a great loss for us,” said Mayor Tommy Swaim. “Lewis was very conscientious and hard-working.”

In 2002 when the mayor broke the news to the council that Lewis was undergoing treatment for lung cancer, prayers were with him. Lewis said then that “the doctors don’t know the origin of the cancer, but are positive. I’m looking at the positive side. The good master is on my side.”

“He was a wonderful man and served the city well,” said Fredrick Gentry, a former Jacksonville alderman.
“I learned a lot from him when I ran against him in 1996.”

When Lewis, a Louisiana native, retired as a technical sergeant from the Air Force in 1975, he and his wife liked Jacksonville so well they decided to stay. “I enjoyed it while I was there,” he said of Air Force life, “but I don’t miss it.”

By 1986, he had discovered some problems with his adopted hometown, issues like streets, drainage and sidewalks. He ran for city council and was elected.

While issues have come and gone, streets, drainage and sidewalks continued to be concerns that stayed with Lewis.
“We put a lot of sidewalks around the city in school areas,” Lewis said. “It takes the walkers out of the streets. Drainage problems — water backing up into people’s homes — are pretty well taken care of by now,” he said when he ran for reelection in 2002. But he always pushed for the city to do more in those areas.

Fighting crime and pushing education were also important to Lewis and his wife, the former Lendy M. Neal. Lewis and his wife were married for 48 years. They raised six of their own children, including a daughter, who was raped and murdered about 15 years ago. They adopted her two young children and raised them also.

Lewis said that raising his grandchildren gave him an appreciation of the issues facing youngsters and their parents.
“It gives you insight and keeps you abreast of things needed in the city,” said Lewis.

Lewis also spent several years as assistant pastor of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church.

Lewis is a graduate of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He also worked as a substitute teacher and a full-time para-educator at several Jacksonville schools.