Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Double Dose of Death Leaves Huge Hole

Van Lewis was a determined, gentle and odd character on the landscape of Tallahassee politics.   I remember that he and his mother, Clifton, were perennial attendees of every city commission meeting I covered as a cub reporter for public radio.  They were there mostly to talk about historic preservation.   Van tried to join the ranks of the Commission... twice.   He never won the popular vote, but he won the hearts of many who appreciated his candor and his unabashed willingness to speak his mind.  When you interviewed him, you had to respect the fact that he not only was Van, but was Ahunahana.  He believed he was the spirit of a Seminole Indian chief.  As a reporter, I figured it was better to go along than to have an argument over these credentials.

His parents were among the few white supporters of equal rights for blacks in Tallahassee during the Civil Rights Movement and bus boycotts in the 1950s and 60s.   His mother was loved by young teen-aged and college boys struggling to make it on the music scene.  My old boss told me Clifton made a place for punk bands to rehearse in a warehouse space when others didn't want anything to do with guys with lopsided hair cuts and leather high-laced boots.  She saw it as artistic expression, and she was all for it.  And that's the stock from which came Van, a tireless advocate against circumcision.

 I came across this video of Van talking about his crusade to end the practice at one of the local hospitals.  It's interesting to hear this guy, with ties to old money Tallahassee with Lewis State Bank, talk about how he and his brother were arrested for simply walking up and down a public sidewalk with protest signs in 1970.  Van died Monday after living for four-months with pancreatic cancer.   He was 68.  Among his last words, the newspaper reports, he wrote out this message on a white dry erase board:
"Maybe God's main work with me is done. My body stops. I don't. I'll try to do my job. I'll let God take care of God's."
Not even 24-hours later, another longtime activist and advocate for neighborhoods was killed in a car accident on West Pensacola Street.   I interviewed Edwina Stephens years ago when I was still the lowest person on the totem pole at WFSU.  But in that one interview, I saw why people were drawn to listen to her.  She was passionate about protecting neighborhoods and the environment.  She didn't need to be in political office; her's was more the role of the prophet, speaking truth to power at every turn and doing so in a way that was a loud thunder without the ligtening show.  Her presence on the southside was huge, and her absence will be felt.  

In thinking about the loss of these two individuals, I am reminded of the real privilege that I enjoyed as a reporter in that I spent time in conversation with people who had something to say that was worth listening to and sharing with the public.  Yes, I also spent countless hours being mired in the crap at the Capitol, and that stuck to me like barnacles on a boat.   But Van in his eccentric, off-beat and loveable ways made following and reporting on the news more fun.  Edwina made her words matter.   Both of them left their indelible mark on me, and I feel richer for having been privileged to share their stories with the public radio audience.

Into your hands, dear God, come the souls of Van and Edwina.  May light perpetual shine upon them and may they ever increase in your presence.   Amen.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I learn more about your life every day, my dear Susie. I am so glad that you were the amazing reporter that you were and still are now as you write your blog. Thanks for this story. May they rest in peace.