Activist Van Lewis dies at age 68

Van Lewis Memoriam
Vol. 9
No. 1
Gerald Ensley
Tue, 06/07/2011

Unable to speak Monday morning because of his illness, Van Lewis took a marker and wrote a message on a white board. It was a few sentences about his impending death. It concluded:
"Maybe God's main work with me is done. My body stops. I don't. I'll try to do my job. I'll let God take care of God's."
Apparently, that was the signal God needed. Lewis died Monday afternoon — looking out at the ocean from his house at St. Teresa — four months after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Lewis, who was the subject of a column in Sunday's Tallahassee Democrat, was 68. He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Mary Balthrop, and their two adult daughters, plus his mother, two brothers and a sister.

"He was a very unique person and he'll be missed," said Tallahassee attorney Tommy Warren, a longtime friend. "He created his own special energy that had a very positive impact on the community."

Lewis was renowned for his sometimes-quixotic social activism. Since 1970, he had led a tireless crusade against male circumcision, picketing hospitals, attending rallies and writing letters to the editor. He called circumcision genital mutilation and said circumcising infants was a "violation of human rights."

He ran twice unsuccessfully for the Tallahassee City Commission (1993, 1994), calling for that board to be expanded from five members to nine members, railing against historic preservation restrictions and criticizing the "tyranny" of local government on several issues.

"Van was willing to say things the way he saw them even when people had a hard time understanding, because he thought it was so important," said David Maloney, a state administrative law judge and a Lewis friend of more than 40 years. "Certainly, he was unconventional. But I admired his conviction."

Lewis was a fifth-generation Tallahasseean; his great, great grandfather founded the Lewis State Bank in 1856, which the family ran until it was sold to a banking corporation in 1974. Lewis attended Harvard for one year before dropping out to pursue a range of passions.

He lived for a few years in Boston and London, and spent one summer on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea working for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. When he returned to Tallahassee in the late 1960s, he spent time as a boat-builder, crab harvester and organic farmer. For nearly 15 years, he operated a seafood store on Thomasville Road. He started a solar energy company and a company that made composting toilets. For the past decade, he was a clam farmer in St. Teresa, gaining renown for raising a succulent form of clam that won raves from area restaurateurs and national seafood shows.

He came by his activism naturally: His parents, Clifton and George Lewis, were among Tallahassee's earliest white supporters of the local civil rights movement. His now-retired mother marched in rallies and spoke out on numerous causes; his late father was the first area banker to give loans to black residents.

"(The Lewis family) are a bunch of people who tried to do good in the world," said Tallahassee author Diane Roberts, a longtime family friend. "They're thinkers, they're not content to just go along. Van learned that from his mother and daddy."

Lewis had a strong concern for the environment. In 1975, Lewis expended his savings to buy a lake and surrounding 20 acres of forest in Wakulla County to save it from development. He later sold the property to the federal St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. He spent last summer as an independent contractor, helping to clean up the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill (writing his last indignant letter to the editor on the subject in May 2010).

His wife spent many years as director of Florida State University's London Center, and joked she could never get her husband to move to London because "he has a taproot at the bottom of his feet that keeps him rooted to Florida sand." "Van was very interested in sustainability, whether it was seafood or forestry or building," said David Avant III, a Lewis cousin. "He was just a first-class guy, who was misunderstood by some."

A memorial service is expected to be held in a couple of weeks at St. Johns Episcopal Church.

"It is so sad," Roberts said. "Van was lots of fun and the most gentle person I have ever known. He was sweetness personified."