Tough but fair. Those were the words most frequently used to describe the late Bob Lewis by friends and former co-workers.
Lewis, 88, was a coach, teacher and principal in New Bern before relocating to Fayetteville, where he largely made his reputation locally as the principal at Seventy-First High School in the 1970s.
He went on to serve in local government, elected to the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners and eventually rising to the chairman’s seat.
Larry Lancaster, who currently serves on the Board of Commissioners, was an educator at roughly the same time as Lewis. Like many, he knew of Lewis’ reputation.
“Bob was a man of conviction,’’ Lancaster said. “He did not shy away from controversy. Back when he was principal, it was a tough time. There were a lot of things going on in this country and a lot of stuff that was brought to the schoolhouse door.’’
Lancaster said Lewis ran a tight ship and expected both students and staff to follow the rules. “There were no shortcuts with Bob,’’ Lancaster said. “Strict, fair, but he had an eye for great people.’’
A number of the people who served under Lewis during his Seventy-First days went on to become leaders in both education and politics.
One of those was Alex Warner, who was an assistant principal with Lewis and became a member of the Cumberland County Board of Education and later the North Carolina General Assembly.
Warner said Lewis faced multiple challenges in his time at Seventy-First. The Vietnam War was raging, and public schools were about to be fully integrated for the first time when Lewis came to Seventy-First as principal in 1968.
On top of that, the building at Seventy-First was built for about 1,100 students, Warner said. At one point during Lewis’ tenure, they had 2,300 enrolled.
“It was dynamite fixing to be set off by some incident,’’ Warner said.
Warner said Lewis had a knack for finding the good in everyone he encountered and nurturing it. Lewis would frequently hold round-table discussions with his whole staff to get various opinions on problems they were dealing with, but when a decision had to be made, Lewis made it and stuck with it.
“When we left the office, we were unified together because the mission was established by the boss,’’ Warner said. “He was the boss, and I admire him for that.’’
Gerald Patterson, another former Lewis assistant who went on to become principal at Seventy- First, said the most important thing he learned from Lewis was to stand up and be counted. Patterson said it was the strength of Lewis’ leadership that propelled many of his protégés into administrative careers of their own.
“What he gave me was the impetus to stand on my own two feet,’’ Patterson said. “Don’t be afraid of who might come after me. Be yourself.’’
Photo: Bob Lewis