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‘A solidly decent human being’

Longtime public servant Jim Lewis passed away this week
Jim Lewis [© David Gibb Photography]
Jim Lewis [© David Gibb Photography]

Longtime Jacksonville City Council member, former mayor and Rogue Valley Council of Government President Jim Lewis passed away Aug. 8, ending an almost four-decade stint in public service, leaving behind countless community members who remember a consummate gentleman and a kind, devoted leader.

Lewis left this world looking like the beloved public servant and former mayor people always knew, said Gayle Lewis, his wife of 51 years. The 77-year-old Lewis suffered a catastrophic event Monday morning but did not suffer.

“He was in his routine. The TV was on, and I was asleep. He was dressed and he looked good, like he did at all his council meetings. He was immaculately groomed, ready for the day,” she said.

“He hadn’t been anywhere, but he was his usual spiffy self with a recent haircut. He’d shaved that morning. He’d always shave for his Zoom meetings. He died on his feet. I was grateful it was a quick death and that he didn’t suffer.”

Gayle Lewis, a retired nurse, said her husband had been grappling with failing health in recent years, slowing down and with limited mobility.

“Even still, he was getting ready to run for City Council again. I was very uneasy about it because his health had been failing and I knew we didn’t have much time. I think he knew, too,” she said.

“His mind was fine, but his body was just plain wearing out. He never complained, just kept going.”

Lewis said much of the week was filled with calls, emails and texts from those she shared her husband with for much of the past half-century.

Michael Cavallaro, former RVCOG director, counted Lewis as a friend and colleague.

“I worked with Jim for the whole 23 years I was director, and he was a wonderful human being. It’s easy to become jaded when you’re in government, especially when you’re close to the political side of things,” said Cavallaro.

“Through the years, there always seemed to be a couple of people who could bring me back from the brink; and Jim was foremost of them. He was kind, considerate, nonjudgmental, just a solidly decent human being, and that was thoroughly refreshing and so revitalizing.”

Mike Montero, chairman of the Rogue Valley Area Commission on Transportation, said Lewis would be sorely missed.

“When the RVACT was founded back in 1997, Jim was one of the originals. He served just faithfully ever since. Jim never came to the meetings with an agenda, but when he had something to contribute, it was always well worth listening to,” Montero said.

Montero said Lewis put “so much heart” into everything he did for the community and kept a watchful eye on ways he could help.

Born May 8, 1945, in Wray, Colorado, to Frederick W. and Dixie Brown, James Windfield Lewis attended about a dozen schools before graduating high school in St. Louis. He became an English teacher after graduating William and Mary College with an English degree in 1967, then he followed in his father’s footsteps to the Navy Officer Candidate’s School.

Not long into flight training school in Pensacola, Florida, Lewis changed his course once more, recounting for the Jacksonville Review in 2019, “Quite frankly, flying was just too scary for me, and I soon realized I would never be comfortable in the cockpit.”

Lewis went to Vietnam to support the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry, serving as a damage control assistant and as an assistant engineer. In July 1969, he met his wife when his ship was sent to Guam for decommissioning. The couple married March 20, 1971.

Utilizing the G.I. Bill, Lewis entered the William and Mary Law School in the fall of 1971, graduating in 1974. The couple moved to Gayle Lewis’s hometown, Jacksonville, in the early 1980s.

An early “stay at home dad,” Lewis immersed himself in public service and with raising his daughter, Claire. His public service career began in 1983 when he was appointed to the Jacksonville Budget Committee and the Historic & Architectural Review Commission. In 1986, he was appointed to a vacancy on Jacksonville City Council, where he remained, except for a few short stints, until his death this week. He served as mayor from 1994-2008.

Lewis told the Jacksonville paper that his time on council was “pretty much fret-free and enjoyable” thanks to a “first-rate staff.”

“One of his few hiatuses was from 2008 to 2010, and it was really hard on him being away from council and not as involved. Rogue Valley Sewer Services bailed him out since they had a board opening, so he was still able to serve,” said Gayle Lewis.

In addition to decades on the City Council and 25 years on the RVCOG board, Lewis was a member of the Regional 911 Board, Rogue Valley Sewer Services Board, the League of Oregon Cities and was a past president of the Oregon Mayor’s Association.

Gayle Lewis said her husband loved a sense of order but, even more so, he loved the community.

“Jim was a master at running meetings, and he was very orderly and productive. He always said, ‘You don’t waste people’s time with a meeting that is out of control,’” she recalled.

“He loved the people he served with and was very attached to the city council and to anyone who was running the COG. He was just a wonderful man.”

She added, “I really have to wonder, how many thousands of hours did he serve and never wanted anything for it?”

Lewis is survived by his wife, Gayle Offenbacher Lewis; daughter, Claire Godward Lewis (Portland); a brother, Stephen K. Lewis; sister-in-law, Savannah Lewis; step siblings Luanna Nicks and Margaret Ferguson (Yorktown, Virginia). He was preceded in death by parents Frederick W. and Dixie Brown Lewis, and sibling Barry Morris.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Buffy Pollock at 541-776-8784 or bpollock@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @orwritergal.