“John Lewis was a good man!” With these six words long-time friend and fellow attorney-at-law T.C. Homesley summed up the life of John Gray Lewis, Jr., 87, during a memorial service at the First ARP Presbyterian Church on East Broad St., on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. It’s probably the best that can be said of any of us after we are gone.
I first met John Lewis sometime around 2002 after I started at the library. John would always come in dressed in a suit and tie like he just walked out of a courtroom. He would usually want me to help him look up an article or an obituary on someone he knew. I would work the microfilm machine while John sat beside me and told me about the history of the incident or person he was looking up.
John G. Lewis Jr., had a phenomenal memory and he loved history, especially the history of Statesville. John lived his entire life at 604 Davie Ave., in the old King family home. John’s father, John Gray Lewis, Sr., (8/27/1885-11/1/1962) came in possession of the home through his marriage to John’s mother Rachel King Lewis (7/14/1892-10/27/1972). When they married on Feb. 26, 1927, the couple moved into 604 Davie with Rachel’s mother Mary Neill King (9/6/1870-5/10/1950) widow of James Alexander King (12/18/1848-6/3/1915). John continued to live there with his wife Linda Byers Loven (2/3/1940-3/24/2017) after they married on Aug. 1, 1970.
John’s father, John Gray Lewis Sr., was also an attorney as was his twin brother Henry Eccles Lewis (8/27/1885-3/31/1946). The two brothers started Lewis & Lewis, Attorney’s at Law in Statesville in March 1911 after graduating from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law and passing the bar in 1909. The 1914-15 Statesville City Directory has their law office in a room at the Commercial National Bank Building. The 1928-29 Statesville City Directory list Lewis & Lewis at 7-8 Lawyers Row, near the court house.
John Lewis Jr., graduated from Statesville High School in 1951 along with Gene Krider, C. Donald Stevenson, and many more who shared John’s love of history. The Local History Department has John’s 1951 high school annual “The Trail” available for viewing on the library’s Flickr site at www.flickr.com/photos/icplphotos/collections. Just click on the “Iredell County Yearbooks” collection and look for Statesville High School.
Classmates and teachers have written all over his yearbook and John is always, “Johnny” which is what friends and family called him. John pasted in his Junior-Senior Prom and banquet invitations in his senior yearbook. The dance was held on May 11th, 1951, from 9 p.m. to midnight in the Statesville High Gym. Prior to the dance the students met for a banquet at 7 p.m. in the Vance Hotel Ballroom.
Johnny Lewis loved to read. In late 2020, I received word through John’s friend and law partner Walter B. Patterson that John wished to donate his book and photograph collection to the library. The last time I had seen John was on Nov. 6, 2019, when he came in a wheelchair with Walter to a program I did on “Heroes of Iredell County in WWI.”
John’s great uncle, Robert Bruce King (4/4/1898-1/21/1919) on his mother’s side, served in WWI and was killed in a troop train accident on Jan. 21, 1919 in France. He is buried at Saint-Mihiel, France, and has a memorial gravestone in Oakwood. John’s grandmother Mary Neill King was the first Iredell County woman to go on a Gold Star Pilgrimage to visit her son Robert’s grave in France in 1930. Robert Bruce’s brother James Richard King (5/23/1895-7-/28/1970) was severely wounded in WWI. John told me Richard suffered a back wound and was gassed.
When I visited John to talk about the donation I found him confined to a bed in the living room unable to even sign his name. His mind and memory were as sharp as ever though and he had the TV set where he could watch the news. A note beside the TV said to keep the channel on CNBC News. John was a strong Democrat and was politically active.
In the 1960 Los Angeles Democratic National Convention that chose John F. Kennedy as its candidate John served as an alternate delegate. I smiled when I first drove out to his house. There were all these “Elect Trump” signs in yard after yard and then there was John’s with “Elect Biden.” I thought, “You tell ‘em John.”
In all I boxed up 32 boxes of books which were brought to the library in a truck by the Iredell County Facility Services Dept. I counted 1,106 books and 102 issues of historical journals. I brought another five boxes back last week from John’s lake house home and still have more to get. The majority of the books were nonfiction historical works, biographies, and religious texts.
John’s faith was strong. He didn’t just read the Bible, he studied and taught it in Sunday School.
John was a descendant of the Lewis, King, Gray, Neill, Eccles, and Sides families. His wife Linda Byers Loven Lewis was a descendant of the Loven, Reedy, and Byers families from Cabarrus County. The photograph albums John donated are now part of the “John Lewis Jr. Collection” in the library’s Local History Room and the images are online on our Flickr page.
I heard a man asking a minister once what kind of body he would have in heaven after his death. He said, “You preached that I would get a new body, but what age will my body be? I don’t want to go through eternity looking like a shriveled up old prune,” (he was pretty old).
The conservation got me to thinking about obituaries and the photos that usually accompany them taken near the end of their life which brings us back to the prune again. With this thought in mind I decided to use the photo of Johnny Lewis when he graduated from Statesville High School in 1951 to accompany this article.
John Gray Lewis Jr., an intelligent, handsome young man with nearly 70 years of learning and adventures in front of him. Statesville’s Johnny Lewis, a good man.
By Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
Published in Statesville Record and Landmark August 11, 2021 p. 1 and 5A.