Robert D.G. Lewis, 1985-86 SPJ president and a longtime Washington correspondent for Booth Newspapers and Newhouse Newspapers, died July 10 at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. He was 80.
Lewis suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, said his wife, Jacqueline Lewis.
He was known for his passion for freedom of information and First Amendment issues. He served as chairman of SPJ’s national Freedom of Information Committee, working to expand the Society’s resources to deal with freedom of information issues. Along with other members, he was instrumental in hiring SPJ’s first legal counsel, Baker & Hostetler, and strengthening the legal defense fund.
“Nobody cared more about these issues than he did,” said 1982-83 SPJ President Steven R. Dornfeld. “Nobody cared more about providing the public with the information that they need.”
Dornfeld said that he thinks Lewis’ proudest moment was in 1980, when he received the Wells Memorial Key, SPJ’s highest honor, for his work with freedom of information.
“He was just a very dedicated old-time journalist who understood that, in addition to gathering the news, journalists played a major role in protecting the public’s right to know,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland and a former FOI Committee chairwoman. “He really understood the importance of journalism to a functioning democracy.”
Following the news of his death, praise for Lewis’ determination came from dozens of colleagues and acquaintances, but he had long impressed others with his tenacity.
When elected SPJ president in 1985, Lewis worked for Newhouse and was known for his Washington correspondence. His diligence, often a battle with elected officials, received notable commendation from an unlikely source: a U.S. senator.
“Admittedly, those of us in public office do not always appreciate every story written about us and our activities,” then-Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) wrote in a 1985 issue of the Congressional Record. “But … whenever Bob Lewis writes about us, he has been fair and has written what he perceives to be the truth.”
For a man known to be a dogged journalist, Lewis exuded kindness.
“I think of Bob — I always think of him with Jackie and I always think about how gracious and nice they are,” Dalglish said.
It was the combination of his gentle personality and determination that helped him succeed as a reporter and a leader, Dornfeld said.
“He had all the qualities you need for a leader you don’t mind working for, especially in a volunteer group,” said past SPJ president Reginald A. Stuart, who was a committee chairman while Lewis was president. “He knew when to speak firmly. I never heard him yell at anybody. He was loyal and consistent.”
Lewis was born in Chicago Jan. 16, 1932, and grew up in Ionia, Mich. He graduated from Michigan State University in 1955 with a bachelor of arts in journalism, and he started his journalism career in Galesburg, Ill., at the Register-Mail.
He returned to Michigan in 1960 to work at the Kalamazoo Gazette and later with Booth Newspapers as a state capital correspondent, before the company moved him to its Washington bureau in 1966. Advance Publications, owner of the now-defunct Newhouse News Service, bought Booth in 1976, and Lewis retired as a senior Washington correspondent in 1991. Then, until 1999, he was senior editor of the AARP Bulletin for the American Association of Retired Persons.
In 2000, Bob and Jackie Lewis started Washington Intern Student Housing, which his son Daniel Lewis and step-daughter Katy McGregor now run, and it houses more than 700 D.C. interns.
“He was a mentor of young people,” Jackie Lewis said. “He really loved the students who touched his life. … He would always find out as best he could who among these hundreds of students who were being housed by WISH, who among them were journalists. Any opportunities he had, he would take them to the National Press Club, take them to lunch.”
Lewis is survived by his wife, nine children, 17 grandchildren and a sister, but one of his greatest legacies is his dedication to FOI issues. Each year, SPJ awards a student member a First Amendment award in his name, and the Washington, D.C. Pro Chapter has an annual Robert D.G. Lewis Watchdog Award.
“Bob could not stand inaccuracy. He wanted transparency, and he wanted the best reporting. And I think he knew that he could do that, but it was hard for him,” Jackie Lewis said. “He influenced a lot of lives through what he wrote. I think that’s it. What kept him going, it wasn’t’ easy, but it was a desire to get it right.”