‘An enthusiastic, excited lad who never gave up his enthusiasm’
This is not the story of one man, his life and accomplishments. This is a story about ideas, some of which became Roaring Fork Valley institutions and some of which didn’t, that all started with one person – Bob Lewis. Lewis, one of Aspen’s most accomplished citizens, died Wednesday, July 27, at age 84. Founder of the Wildwood preschool, the Independence Pass Foundation, and the Aspen Field Biology Laboratory (among other local institutions), creator of the Braille Trail and catalyst behind the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and North Star Preserve, he died as he lived: fully immersed in his latest project, feeling accomplished and happy.
He and a colleague, Fadia Middlebrook, were driving home from a meeting at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, where they had just secured a partnership for Lewis’ Aspen Field Biology Laboratory. In the last few months of his life, he had often talked about the biology lab, which was officially launched about a year ago, as his final project. After telling Middlebrook, who was driving, that their mission was accomplished, and giving her some uplifting advice, Lewis fell asleep and never woke up.”My dad always thought of something positive and happy before going to sleep, so he could set himself up for happy dreams,” said his daughter, Katie Etienne.Lewis was described as a visionary, an inspirational educator, a tireless environmentalist, an idea man and a dreamer who made his dreams come true. So you’d think he would have been a serious, nose-to-the-grindstone type of guy. But while his mind never wandered far from his work, he had a lust for life that included long dinners with friends, worldwide travel, a deep interest in other people and cultures, and a fondness for wine and the occasional toke.Play was work, work was play. His home on two acres next to North Star Preserve was his “camp” and workplace for more than 40 years, and the natural world never lost its fascination for him.
“I think of him as an enthusiastic, excited lad who never gave up his enthusiasm,” said longtime friend Marcia Corbin.Lewis’ legacy is found in his projects and the people he inspired to carry them forward. Everyone interviewed for this article remarked on his ability to share his dreams and determination, and to inspire others to help him. He was good at empowering people, said Etienne, and always believed that successful execution depended on “10 percent inspiration and 90 percent communication.”The Bob Lewis projectsIt started in 1951, when a 30-year-old veteran of the 10th Mountain Division moved his family from California to Aspen. With degrees in zoology and ecology, he taught science courses at Aspen High School for nine years, while driving the school bus for extra cash. By 1950s standards, he was an innovative teacher, taking the kids on frequent field trips and using a hands-on approach to learning. Former student Dan Glidden remembers Lewis building a streambed, complete with goosenecks and waterfalls, in geology class.
“He really wanted you to see how it works,” said Glidden. “But he made it so much fun. He really wanted you to get involved and we did – we all got involved in his projects.”Lewis developed several educational science tools that made learning more engaging than the traditional textbook method. Probably the best-known was the film loop, a four-minute science film (of the life cycle of fish in a stream, for example) in a plastic case that students clicked into a special projector.Aspen local Willard Clapper, who reached high school after Lewis had retired as a teacher, remembers that “everybody knew Bob Lewis was an innovative, exciting science teacher and it was a class you wanted to take.” Clapper studied under Lewis’ protégé, Frank Beer, and went on to teach at Aspen Middle School teacher for nearly 30 years. “His impact was felt throughout the school district,” said Clapper. “Bob had people out knee-deep in the mud, and that’s the philosophy I took.”
Lewis spent much of the 1960s working nationally and internationally as a consultant. He designed a science lab for the United Nations School in New York and developed biology curricula for African nations. During this time he made contacts at organizations like the National Science Foundation and UNESCO; universities and other large institutions would help fund several of his future projects.It was an exciting time at home too. Etienne, who was born in 1955, describes her youth as “a fantastic childhood of moving around and traveling. He was always bringing home fascinating people, and I got to stay up late for that.”Lewis’ heart was in Aspen, however. During the summers from 1964 to 1971 he directed a summer field biology program that brought high school students to the Aspen area. Forty years before the official beginning of the Aspen Field Biology Laboratory, the groundwork was laid.Like the molecule models Lewis would bring home for the kids to play with, each of his projects was linked to another. School field trips to Hallam Lake led to the idea of preserving the area for scientific study and education – thus, in 1968, ACES was born. Now, the organization makes more than 30,000 contacts with children every school year.In the late ’60s and early ’70s Lewis latched onto the idea of instilling an environmental ethic in young children. He spent five years raising money before opening the doors of Wildwood in 1974. The school, built with volunteer labor and resembling a couple of earthen domes, was designed to simulate a rabbit hole. He never realized his dream of having the children enter through a hole in the roof and a slide, but the idea of hands-on, nature-based education carries on to this day. The 16-acre site includes beaver ponds and a “grow room” for plants, and kids make frequent field trips exploring the natural world.
Lewis was Wildwood’s director for its first four years and always heavily involved in its programming. Former director Karen Nye remembers him bringing branches into the school for the kids to study the leaves, then turning them into candlesticks.”He really tried his whole life long to impact education,” said Nye. “He spent his life dreaming about designing environments to enhance man’s understanding of what was out there and how it fit in.”Current director Becky Helmus said Lewis stayed involved to the end. He would come by, fix things, introduce new ideas or projects – even insist on meeting new teachers, or spontaneously invite kids and teachers to his place to roast marshmallows.”He taught everyone never to lose that excitement, that curiosity, and he demonstrated that himself,” said Helmus.
A passion for placeOn his early excursions with students up Independence Pass, Lewis noticed the huge scars left by some of the road cuts. He had started the Environmental Research Group in the 1970s to work on small rehabilitation projects; a fund-raising arm was later formed to finance work on the pass. The project became so successful that around 1989 it evolved into the Independence Pass Foundation, now a healthy nonprofit.According to IPF Director Mark Fuller, the road to Independence Pass looks the way it does because of Lewis’ mission. The Colorado Department of Transportation keeps the road passable by plowing and removing rocks, but IPF has spearheaded and largely funded projects stabilizing slopes, controlling erosion, and building and maintaining pullouts.IPF perhaps most perfectly illustrates Lewis’ unique combination of talents: fund raising, team-building and passion for the environment. The organization brings together labor and funding from the county, state and federal governments, not to mention private sources.
“While Bob had the initial ideas and passion to make sure something got done, really the most lasting legacy is that he brought together a team of agencies and people that cared as much as he did,” said Fuller.Lewis’ persistence wasn’t always favorably received, and he wasn’t shy about airing his frustrations. But he didn’t hold grudges, friends said, and his stubbornness had its limits.One of Lewis’ ideas that never bore fruit was a trail following the riparian corridor from Difficult campground to Independence Pass. ACES Director Tom Cardamone told Lewis the trail might have a negative impact on wildlife, and “at the end of our meeting he said he’d drop it,” recalled Cardamone. “That was just great that someone over 80 was open to some kid telling him he should spend his energies elsewhere. He was pretty set in his ways, but not so much that he couldn’t change.”Another idea that didn’t quite take off was a museum about the human brain, actually shaped like a human brain, that would illustrate its inner workings.Throughout his busy life, Lewis had little time to be sentimental. But later in his life, said Corbin, he allowed himself to be touched. As a 10th Mountain Division veteran he marched in Aspen’s 2005 Fourth of July parade, then recounted the experience to Corbin in wonder: “Everybody was clapping and cheering and yelling Thank you! Thank you! But I didn’t do anything.”
The TapestryLewis’ final project, the Aspen Field Biology Laboratory, in a way completed the circle. A founding member of ACES in 1968, Lewis had hoped that it would include a scientific research component. ACES became focused instead on education, and Lewis spent the next few decades, through his various environmental projects, studying parts of the Elk Mountain “bioregion.” He got involved in environmental battles in other parts of Colorado, but Lewis applied most of his energies to local issues. He often used storyboards – poster-sized displays illustrating issues like stream degradation with text, photos and charts – to show people the bigger picture in an easy-to-understand way. Paul Andersen, who authored two books that Lewis conceived and researched, called Lewis “the environmental conscience of the Roaring Fork Valley.”All of Lewis’ earlier ideas came together in AFBL. The organization would provide the tools to preserve the Elk Mountains through studies of its plants, animals and watersheds, and to share that information with other scientists and land managers. According to AFBL literature, “sound environmental planning should incorporate results of current ecological studies for necessary protection of the high-altitude ecosystem. Application of this work can improve management and support sustainable relationships between humans and the ecosystems upon which we depend.” Lewis often referred to the concept behind the project as “the Tapestry.”
In fund-raising letters and to friends, Lewis spoke of the “magic” of the Roaring Fork Valley, which basically drove his life’s work. His daughter Katie, Fadia Middlebrook and numerous community members who sit on the AFBL board will continue Lewis’ work. Two studies – one on owls and one on local streams – have been launched, alliances with universities and other institutions have been cemented, and fund raising has gotten off the ground.”The Wildwood School was the beginning of the Tapestry,” said Middlebrook, AFBL’s associate director. “Independence Pass [Foundation] was the road in between, and Aspen Field Biology Laboratory is the end of the Tapestry. This is Bob’s last swan song that links it all together. No one knows what Pitkin County’s going to look like in the next 20 years, but Bob wanted to give us a 20-year head start with this.”Catherine Lutz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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