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George Lewis grew up the son of a coal miner in Pennsylvania. He could hear the sounds of digging near his house. George was the grandson of a coal miner, too—until the day a body bag was tossed onto the family porch: all that remained after a mining accident. Sometime after that, the Lewis family moved with their only child to Connecticut—a deliberate escape from destiny.
George married out of high school and became a factory machinist; not a lively job for a lively mind. They had their first two daughters, bought a development house and were well along a formulaic suburban trajectory. Then, as George’s third daughter, Nia, explains, they fell off the curve: “So they had their Ethan Allen furniture from when they were married and then something happened and they cut all the legs off the furniture and everything went down to the ground. They acquired hippie-dom."
George had discovered two transformative passions: his social conscience and marijuana. It was as if he had been liberated into the fascinations of youth, but now he was an adult and could act on them. He opened a marijuana paraphernalia shop, took art classes and protested war. He also fell into a series of random jobs, including one in a group home for developmentally disabled adults. George drove them to their workshops, but that didn’t last long, Nia recalls, “Because he told them that they had rights, and that if they wanted to stop for a beer after work they could. And that didn’t go over well.”
George's marriage dissolved, so peaceably that in 1976—when he moved to coastal Maine—his new wife and his old wife came along. Homesteading became the next transformative passion. He built a house with a hand pump, a wooden stove, and of course, an outhouse. He slaughtered his own animals for some food, grew the rest himself, sold Christmas trees in winter and blueberries in summer. To his daughters, he was a symbol of freedom, but a symbol with rules. There was a curfew. They did homework.
In his 70's, a misdiagnosed toothache devolved into a massive stroke. Moving to Boston with Nia, George learned to walk again and to speak again, but never again to read, not even his own hand-writing. Balance and gait were terrible. But he could shoot a bulls-eye with a bow and arrow, and took up karate at 74. The day program at the senior center became his social exercise and often kept him out later than expected. “Where’s George? And he’d be like an hour late," Nia remembers. "I’d be calling them saying ‘What’s going on?’ And he was like, ‘I wanted to stay with the bus driver so I went on the bus route.’ And took everybody else home first.”
The social conscience that enlarged throughout his life never left him. After his stroke, when he could no longer drive, his ex-wife discovered a pillow in the cab of his truck. In his newly stammering speech, he explained that he’d been carrying it around for years in case he ever came across an accident on the road. Someone might need it.
George Lewis died December 14 in the Hebrew SeniorLife Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, where Nia still works. He was 76 years old.
Did you know George Lewis? Share your memories in the comments section.
This segment aired on October 27, 2015.
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