Tallahassee icon Van Lewis is facing the end

Van Lewis Memoriam
Vol. 9
No. 1
Gerald Ensley
Fri, 09/30/2011

Tallahassee soon won't have Van Lewis to call wacko anymore. Or maybe not.

Lewis ran twice unsuccessfully for City Commission in the 1990s, citing his experience as a centuries old Apalachee Indian warrior, Ahunahana, who had been reincarnated in "my clever Caucasian disguise." So you can't rule out an encore.

But the curtain is dropping on this act. Lewis, 68, has advanced pancreatic cancer, a notoriously fatal cancer, which usually claims its victims within six to nine months of diagnosis. Lewis was diagnosed in February.

Yet as is the wont of a man who has been called quixotic, offbeat and, yes, even crazy, Lewis sees his plight as an opportunity.

"Here's the important question: How well can I live while I'm alive? How well can I love the people around me and show them I love them?" Lewis said last week. "(Since his diagnosis), I feel I have grown. I'm not saying I wasn't a loving person before. But this is an intensification."

Lewis is a Tallahassee icon — in a Southern Gothic sort of way: the eccentric son of an eccentric mother.

Clifton Van Brunt was a pretty Tallahassee May Queen, who married a fifth-generation Tallahassee banker, George Lewis. They had four children, famously commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design their home near Lake Jackson and did all the dutiful Southern things for a while. But in the 1950s, when blacks began to advocate for civil rights, the Lewises joined the movement. At some peril to their standing among Tallahassee's white aristocracy, Clifton and George Lewis spent decades protesting racism, injustice, unfairness and assaults on the less fortunate.

Clifton Lewis, who has retired from the public scene, earned indulgent eye-rolling for her odd tunics, caps and stream-of-consciousness rhetoric. And her second child, christened with his mother's maiden name, William Van Brunt Lewis, has proved equally iconoclastic. He abandoned Harvard after a year, "because I didn't want to lose my fresh mind," and pursued his passions: organic farming, boat-building, seafood selling, solar energy, composting toilets, clam farming, religion, political office — and medical activism.

For more than 40 years, he has been an implacable foe of male circumcision. In 1970, he was arrested for picketing Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, carrying a sign that called physicians who perform circumcisions "Sex Criminals for Hire." He has harangued city, county and state lawmakers. He has written letters to the editor.

Talking about circumcision sends him into spittle-flying, lectern-pounding, top-of-the-lungs fury. His vehemence sometimes scares people — especially on a seemingly arcane topic few ever ponder. Hence, the crazy tag.
But those who know him say it's an unfair perception that ignores his reality away from the soapbox.

It ignores that he's adored by his wife of 38 years, longtime administrator Mary Balthrop, two high-achieving adult daughters and two grandchildren. It ignores that he's been a hard-working businessman, whose family, he says, was never as wealthy as supposed. It ignores that he is a warm-hearted, generous man, beloved by friends. It ignores that his social fervor is born of an extraordinary intelligence and curiosity.

"People see Van out holding a sign about circumcision or whatever that strikes them the wrong way and they draw their opinion from there. But they don't know Van Lewis," said Tallahassee attorney Tommy Warren, a friend for 40 years. "He is brilliant, and the reason he is different is because he's brilliant. Otherwise, he'd be like the rest of us."

Lewis is living out his final days at Camp Itldo, the open-air, "wooden tent" of a beach house built by his grandfather in 1908 at St. Teresa Beach. A once-sinewy 6-foot, 160 pounds, he is down to 120 pounds and subsisting on juices, broths and mother's milk donated by friends.

In a four-hour visit last week, he was more engaging than odd. He regaled a visitor with stories about clam farming, insights on nutrition, his adventures abroad as a young man and his belief, despite being a lifelong Episcopalian, the universe is ruled by, "I don't know that I'd call it God; I call it love."

Of course, duty required one offer him a chance to explain his crusade against circumcision — which led to a few rants. Lewis considers circumcision to be genital mutilation, which causes trauma that prevents men from bonding with their mothers and leaves them forever psychologically scarred. He ascribes "being a madman" in his mid-20s to his own circumcision. He asserts hundreds of babies are killed every year by infection caused by circumcision. And he has done everything he can to rid the world of the practice, from attending annual rallies in Washington, D.C., to helping persuade Florida legislators in 2003 to stop state Medicaid funding for circumcision.

"It's personal with me," Lewis said. "There is no competent medical claim that it is medically necessary. It is a fundamental violation of human rights. Nobody has the right to cut off your nose because they think you'll look better. The only reason physicians get away with it is because medicine is a business, not a profession."

It is a crusade for which he will be remembered in Tallahassee. And maybe not warmly. But his wife praises him for fighting for what he believes.

"Van is a person who cares deeply about babies, and to take a knife to a baby bothered him on a scientific level and a human level," she said. "The more he learned, the more compelled he felt to have people look at the issue, even if it caused him embarrassment, harassment or discomfort.

"Just because someone thinks you're crazy doesn't mean you are. And you shouldn't let it stop you from doing what you do."

Maybe his crusade is not over. Lewis' interest in reincarnation traces to his teenage days roaming the Lake Jackson Indian Mounds, pondering the fate of the Apalachee Indians who once lived there and thinking, "Maybe I'm here because I was one of those people."

"That an organic, peaceful culture — at least among themselves — would vanish, didn't compute with me," he said. "What did compute is that our bodies stop, but we go on."

And Ahunahana shall return.