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2023 Year in Review — Gimme Shelter: Remembering Chris

This column was published in February 2023.

Perhaps the finest accolade I’ve received in 10 years as editor of the Reporter was a statement by Chris Lewis at a public function not long after she retired from the Town Board in 2017. One of the joys of retirement that she was looking forward to was, she said, that, “I won’t have to pick up the phone at 7 o’clock in the morning to answer questions from Ambrose Clancy.”

That short sentence sums up Chris. The use of a wry phrase to make several points at once; the inclusive smile to those who get it; her sense of public service; and the Midwestern wit of making a pleasure sound like a chore.

I’d call her at 7 a.m. for several reasons. I knew she’d pick up the phone. I knew she’d answer (mostly) my questions about the Town government and the issue of the moment. And I’d start my day with the benefit of her sense of humor — her conversation was never far from a smile — her optimism, clear thinking and a dedication to doing something to make where she lives a better place.

News of Chris’s death on Wednesday, Feb. 1, was a shock. This might seem strange, to be shocked by the death of an 88-year-old person. But she was among those rare people who, no matter their age, or debilitating illness, cause you to be momentarily brought up short when you hear the news. It’s because they are the ones who seem indestructible, the ones who have a character that is strong, anchored to an idea of service to young and old and all income levels, and a joie de vivre through struggles.

Her spirit, intelligence and dedication made her the conscience of the Town Board and beloved among her constituents. During 12 of her years on the Board, she was also the deputy supervisor, and previous to her terms at Town Hall, she spent 12 years on the Board of Education.

Adding to that significant record of public service, Chris volunteered with the Senior Citizens Foundation and became its president.

But her accomplishments as a professional — she worked as a registered nurse for many years — and as an elected official, are secondary to the life she led as a wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. Again, that’s why it’s a shock that she is no longer here.

But the shock evaporates, and you receive, after the ache of grief eases (just a bit), a gift if you’re lucky: The knowledge that the loved one is not truly gone. They’re with you, always.

Chris was one who, in newspaper-speak, “knew how to play the game.” Meaning she would talk to us, professional-to-professional, and once you got to know each other, person-to-person. She was unlike the many elected officials on every level of government who deal with you with the unspoken vibe of — “Why don’t you get a real job?”

Seeing her around town she was always bright, serious when a topic required it, and a jaunty observer of the wider world and its problems. At Town Board meetings, she was the wise one in the midst of sometimes chaotic characters.

It’s hoped that the opera produced by some actors over the issue of affordable housing will fade away, ever so slightly, as did the full-scale Gotterdammerung productions going on at work sessions at Town Hall around “dark skies” and short-term rentals.

During those months of shouting, innuendo, sarcasm and bile, Chris stood out for her reserve and wisdom. When some characterized simple enforcement rules for proposed Town ordinances as “gestapo tactics,” Chris calmly noted to her colleagues that “most people will follow directions and do the right thing … Most people don’t drive drunk or invade other people’s houses for purposes of burglary. But laws are for people who absolutely refuse to do the right thing.”

Or when a colleague went on the attack against this newspaper and fellow Town Board members, Chris, her voice calm, but her eyes flashing, said, “Don’t diminish people you’re opposing, it’s just necessary to state your point of view. In the future you might consider that … This is not the schoolyard.”

And for a girl raised in the feet-on-the-ground world view of Indiana and Illinois, and a woman working as a nurse in hard-headed New York City, she could also stop you with a Zen koan worthy of a monk in a monastery.

Once, in a long discussion at a Town Board meeting on an issue that kept circling back to its beginning with no resolution, Chris said, “Every problem doesn’t have a solution. Sometimes you just have an outcome.”

Walking out of Town Hall that late afternoon after Chris had laid that on her colleagues and the few audience members in the room, a friend said, “What the hell is she talking about?”

I said I wasn’t sure. “But it makes sense. Somehow.”

My friend was nodding his head as he headed for his car. The next morning at 7, I asked her about a few details on an unrelated issue, some background on others, and then, before saying goodbye, said, “That stuff about solutions and outcomes? What did you mean?”

Without a pause, Chris said, “Got you, didn’t I?”

I laughed. And she said, “Keep thinking about it.”

And I have, especially since I heard the news of Chris’s death.

Farewell, my friend. I’ll stay in touch.