Visionary Bob Lewis dies at 84
Bob Lewis, a longtime local visionary and environmentalist who founded many Aspen institutions, died Wednesday. He had celebrated his 84th birthday on July 14.A scientist by training, Lewis was at times a high school teacher, school director, filmmaker and furniture maker, among other things. Well known for his love of the environment, he created and led such organizations as the Independence Pass Foundation, the Wildwood School and the Aspen Field Biological Laboratory. The latter is a nonprofit organization established just last summer, intended to be a headquarters for scientists to study the Elk Mountain bioregion.”What a tireless visionary and dreamer he was,” said Becky Helmus, current director of the Wildwood School. “He had his hands in a lot of different things. His life’s energies were well spent.”
Friends and colleagues say Lewis was constantly coming up with new ideas. His vision of a nature trail for the blind became a reality with the Braille Trail near Independence Pass. Another unique idea, a brain museum – a museum in the shape of a human brain whose interior would actually show its inner workings – didn’t get off the ground.”He was an energizer,” said Mark Fuller, director of the Independence Pass Foundation. “There were things he wanted to do and he wouldn’t let things stand in this way.”Despite his cerebral nature, Lewis was a proponent of understanding things by experiencing them, and brought that approach to all his endeavors. As a high school science teacher (his first job in the valley, for most of the 1950s), Lewis frequently led his students on field trips. From those outings, the Hallam Lake Nature Preserve, now run by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, was born. The Independence Pass Foundation was initially conceived as a funding arm for the Environmental Research Group, an organization that worked primarily on revegetation and reseeding projects on and near Independence Pass.Perhaps the best example of his work is the Wildwood School, a nontraditional preschool Lewis founded in 1974. The school’s construction, a couple of earth-covered domes, mimics nature; the program emphasizes learning through sensory experiences with the environment.
“He was real different in how he saw learning; it was not a rote experience by any means,” said Karen Nye, a former Wildwood School director. As disparate as some of his endeavors seemed, all Lewis’ interests were in fact connected by the idea of preserving the environment, and learning from it.”Bob became the environmental conscience of the valley,” said writer Paul Andersen, a friend of Lewis’ of 25 years who worked with him on two books. Born in 1921 in California, Lewis graduated from Hollywood High School and shortly afterward enrolled in the 10th Mountain Division. It was during his training at Camp Hale that he first saw Aspen. He married Barbara Crandall in 1944, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in zoology in 1950, and started teaching at Aspen High School in 1951. He earned his master’s in alpine ecology one year later.
For more than 40 years Lewis lived in a house east of Aspen adjacent to the North Star Nature Preserve, although in recent years he had been spending winters elsewhere.Throughout his extensive travels, friends said, he would praise the Roaring Fork Valley – its environment and the various projects he was involved in. Lewis’ death was unexpected though peaceful. He was the passenger in a car coming back from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, which he was visiting on business in connection with his work with the Aspen Field Biological Laboratory, when he died.
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