Jan 20, 2011
An Episcopal memorial service was held for William Van Brunt Lewis (Van Lewis) at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday afternoon, June 20, 2011.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was constructed in 1888, is a large, beautifully-appointed brick church in downtown Tallahassee, Florida. It is flanked by live oak trees festooned with spanish moss.
The Lewis family is a prominent family in Tallahassee and they have many friends. The sanctuary was absolutely packed for this service.
The service included the Eucharist or Communion. J. Steven Svoboda of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child delivered a splendid eulogy.
A reception was held in the parish hall after the memorial service.
J. Steven Svoboda, David Wilson of Cocoa Beach, Florida, Randall Delaware, and I were the intactivists present at the memorial service.
Van’s human remains had been cremated. His family had chosen to inter his ashes the previous day, Father’s Day, June 19, 2011, at St. Teresa Beach, an unincorporated community on U. S. Highway 98 in Franklin County about 30 miles south of Tallahassee, where Van had a home and where he was a clam farmer and which he loved.
Here’s the text of Steven’s speech delivered in Tallahassee, Florida at Van Lewis’ memorial service on June 20, 2011. May this wonderful, loving, great man rest in peace.
Van Lewis Eulogy by Steven Svoboda
I want to thank my dear friend Mary Alda Balthrop [Van’s widow] for doing me the great honor of allowing me to honor the memory of Van Lewis today. If we can write a man’s memory with a special pen capable of recording his feelings for others and theirs for him, a pen able to inscribe the immeasurable value he added to our lives, Van Lewis left a legacy of love that would stretch around the world and back again. I saw that love all around him—his wonderful wife, his many colleagues, and now, today, in his innumerable beloved relatives and his legion of close friends. I also saw it in his honorary status as the beloved grandfather of a large group of people around the world devoted to an issue that was close to his heart for 41 years.
With just days left to live, Van remained focused—as he always was–on love. He said at that time: “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? Since my diagnosis, I feel I have grown. I’m not saying I wasn’t a loving person before. But this is an intensification.” Van knew himself well; he was always a profoundly and deeply loving person. Even near the end, at first he was going to decline to be interviewed about his life for the article recently published in the Tallahassee Democrat, but then he changed his mind when the thought occurred to him that some readers might read about his work and some babies might be saved from circumcision. Always thinking of others.
So how did Van get so deeply enmeshed in what for many is a strange issue, fighting circumcision? Mary summed it up as only she could: “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. In early adulthood, he began to question the violence of both female and male circumcision and reached the conclusion that these acts were harmful to both individuals and the culture. As he studied and learned more, he became aware of general ignorance about the harm of male infant circumcision. As a result, he felt called to become an outspoken opponent of male infant circumcision. Determined to remain focused on love even in the face of ignorance and ridicule, he taught passionately in every way he could that male infant circumcision is a medically unnecessary and harmful trauma that violates the rights of the child. For the innocent, vulnerable, and voiceless, he remained a tireless voice until the end of his life.”
Great leaders create great followers. Sometimes in a very specific way, as there were other activists who modeled themselves after Van and started similar campaigns in other places, learning from his trailblazing work. Often the lessons and inspiration were more general. Van led all of us in teaching us about living an inspired life, tenaciously and relentlessly fighting for what you believe in, fashionable or not. And about having a good belly laugh as often as possible. Van said, “If laughing is healthy, then I will live to be 100 years old.” Well, he didn’t make it to the century mark, but that irrepressible, frequent, hearty laugh of his is still resonating in my ears. As I know it must be in many of your ears as well.
Nobel Laureate George Wald was Van’s mentor at Harvard. In fact, Van introduced Wald to the issue. Great leaders create great followers! After Wald gave a talk at Florida State in February 1975, Van offered at the reception to drive him to the airport. During the drive, Van asked him if he had ever thought about the circumcision issue, and he said he had not but would do so. Six months later, Wald sent Van a typewritten manuscript entitled, “Circumcision.”
That would have made a great story if it stopped there, but of course we all know that the words “stop” and “Van” cannot be grammatically used in the same sentence. Van did painstaking work extending over a number of years with Wald’s widow until the paper was finally presented by Van in 2002, 37 years after it was written, and was finally published in 2010. Van first saw the piece last October while at his 45th Harvard reunion and he was over the moon to see the article by his admired mentor finally in print.
Van painstakingly collected the names of boys who died after circumcision. For forty-one tireless, astonishing years, Van was a leading crusader on the behalf of all children. So he wasn’t just a man who loved like there was no tomorrow and who inspired the same in the world. He was also a man of stunning accomplishment.
Fellow activist Patricia Robinett said, “We lost a valiant warrior. van was the best… he could tease & scold & tear apart an argument… and then soothe the defeated with a smile and his soft southern drawl.”
At the mention of Van Lewis’ name, activist Ron Low weeps, even if he happens to be speaking on a radio show. Now, I’ve known Ron Low for a number of years. He is a well-grounded businessman, not one particularly prone to excesses of emotionality. Until Van’s name comes up, that is. Van had that effect on many of us. He was the greatest of men, the sort of man who called up the very best each of us had to offer, and saw us for the best we had to offer too.
I know I was decades behind many of you, but I first met Van in April 1999 in Chicago. Somehow we quickly became friends and when I saw him and his wife Mary in Washington, DC in 2001, we spent some time together that will live in my heart forever. Of course, both Van and Mary did things the hard way and pulled it off. Mary flew over from London and Van drove up in his beloved truck from Florida. It was as if time stood still. Can life be this wonderful, I asked myself. Can such amazing people really exist? And why am I lucky enough to know them, even to be friends with them? Van inspired these kind of thoughts, this kind of love.
Van didn’t do things the easy way. Let me tell you another of his exploits, this one a recent one. Last December 17 was the fortieth anniversary of his first demonstration against circumcision, when he was arrested and held in jail for several hours. In Mary’s words, “On this day, Van went by himself to the exact spot at the hospital where he demonstrated in 1970. His signs in 2010 had the exact same messages as in 1970. It was raining and cold that day and Van began to have the nausea that he later learned was associated with his cancer. But he went anyway. He was so cold and tired that night but he was also so very very happy that he had been able to do his demonstration on the exact 40-year anniversary.”
Van and I in some ways were oil and water. A lawyer more or less forced by my position with Attorneys for the Rights of the Child to represent serious, establishment thoughts could have clashed with a let-it-all-hang-out, religiously observant clam farmer from Florida. But Van always was able to see the real person underneath my seemingly solid disguise. (It always amused both me and Van that we two fringe characters both spent time at Harvard.) I couldn’t hide my heart from Van any more than anyone else could. Van, a true lover and man of many passions, always saw and brought out passion in others.
Van’s activist strategies sometimes got him into trouble with others in the movement who thought he might be making us look bad. Van was the sweetest, kindest, gentlest, and most loving soul I have ever had the privilege of knowing–until he got to writing about cutting babies’ genitals, and then he became ferocious. Marilyn Milos said, “Because of his ferocious commitment to his beliefs, even people who agreed with his message didn’t necessarily appreciate the way he delivered that message. When they began to criticize his activism, Van called to tell me he no longer wanted to serve as a NOCIRC Center director because he didn’t want to cause animosity in our movement and he certainly wasn’t going to keep his mouth shut!” But in the end Van Lewis did the impossible and ended Medicaid payments for circumcision in a Southern state, sometimes banging on tables to get there, and in the process saving Florida $2.7 million per year, no chump change.
At the Berkeley symposium last year, Van led the signature collection drive for a petition to the government. Van also webmastered a different [Ashley Montagu] petition drive. Both the signature collection and the webmastering of the petitions were such appropriate things for him to do, given his ability to reach and touch the hearts of so many.
Leonard Glick is a distinguished anthropology professor, a man of careful, nuanced language not given to overstatement. Len said, “Saying that someone’s eyes twinkled is a cliche, but that comes first to mind when I remember Van. He would look at me with that soft gentle gaze and deliver an impossibly optimistic proposal for what I might do next to end circumcision. But I knew that nothing seemed impossible to Van – not if it might save a few more infants. He was one of a kind. I wrote and sent a card. He responded when there was little time remaining, speaking about the importance of love.”
Van wrote a long article about Christianity and circumcision, filled with Bible quotations and his thoughtful meditations on the subject as he concluded that the Bible and Jesus call for Christian action to struggle against a practice he found abhorrent.
Along those lines, activist Michael Steffe may have some insight into what Van is currently up to, in case any of you were wondering: “As much as I know Van, instead of resting in peace he is now up there waking up God from a long afternoon nap to ask Him if he could use His power to send lightning bolts (of enlightenment) to strike those that have the nerve to mess with Mother Nature and to change His perfect Creation.”
Great lovers create great lovers. When I saw Van at the Berkeley symposium a little under a year ago, I had no idea that was the last time I would see him. I guess I assumed Van Lewis, beloved friend and colleague to so many of us, a force of nature, could no more pass on than the sky could die or the wind could go away forever. Van didn’t seem subject to ordinary rules and limitations. And his greatest gift may have been that he taught us, by word but more importantly by example, to love beyond what we might have thought possible and to shine gloriously and bravely in our lives, as William Van Brunt Lewis shined in his unique, wonderful, miraculous life.