Bill Lewis Tells The Stories of Pennsylvania’s Past
By Mary Ellen Alu ’77
It’s no surprise that Bill Lewis the storyteller has a good story of his own.
At age 4, when other boys his age wanted toy soldiers or trucks, the main thing on Lewis’s Santa list was a book on the French and Indian War. His family still teases him about it.
But that request would come to define Bill Lewis ’80, MBA ’86. More than a storyteller, Lewis is a history buff whose passion has led to a gubernatorial appointment to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and leadership roles with the Luzerne County Historical Society.
“If history’s to be interesting,” Lewis will tell you, “there has to be a story.”
And he has told plenty — as guest speaker, author and tour guide. Like the story about the Wilkes-Barre woman whose mother and brother survived the sinking of the Titanic. And the one about Teddy Roosevelt coming to Wilkes-Barre’s River Commons in 1905, a watershed event. And another about the excavation of bodies from Wilkes-Barre’s first public cemetery (where City Hall now stands) that helps to form his “ghost” tours for the historical society.
By day a vice president and wealth management advisor for Merrill Lynch, Lewis became interested in history while growing up in Wilkes-Barre. Older neighbors would share the city’s history; older relatives would share family history. His parents fed his fascination, taking him on trips to historic spots such as Valley Forge State Park. That all led to a “super strong interest” in the history of the Wyoming Valley and Northeastern Pennsylvania — and history across the board.
“It always fascinated me to learn about the stories of the past,” Lewis said. “I just can’t get enough of it.”
As he got older and began researching the family stories, he found not all were true. Yet what he learned often proved more interesting. He said he came to understand how world events — including religious persecution in Europe — came to shape his life.
Lewis funnels his passion for history into public service. As a member of the state historical commission, he chairs its Historic Marker committee, helping to select the people, places and events to forever be designated by a blue and gold state marker. Wilkes Associate Professor of History John Hepp recently joined him on the committee. In September, Lewis was in Bethlehem, Pa., when a state marker — one of 12 approved in 2012 — was dedicated to note the 1910 Bethlehem Steel Strike. In October, he was in Philadelphia for the dedication of a marker outside actress Grace Kelly’s home.
As a Wilkes undergraduate, Lewis aspired to a career in public administration, inspired by professor Andrew Shaw. His research on Wilkes-Barre mayors formed the basis of a booklet he authored. After college, he held staff positions with the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. Finding public administration wanting, Lewis pursued advanced degrees and eventually chose a new career path, in financial planning.
Still, his love of history persisted.
An extensive traveler, Lewis does exhaustive research before heading somewhere. He has a fondness for American, British and Chinese history, the latter fed in part by his many missions to China in his work with the American Red Cross. He has long been active with the organization, serving on the national Board of Governors and on a team that helped the Chinese Red Cross prepare for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. So deep is Lewis’ knowledge of Chinese history that he has a running joke with a friend born in Hong Kong: Lewis has to teach his friend about Chinese history, not vice versa.
A past president of the Luzerne County Historical Society, Lewis remains on its board, chairing its publication committee. He hopes to revitalize booklet-sized publications on local history, which he thinks can prove more popular than thicker, costlier texts. “You can digest a lot of history in two hours,” he said.
At the historical society, Lewis is overseeing a publication on Luzerne County soldiers who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. Outside of his work there, he is preparing a publication on Pennsylvania passengers on the Titanic. He also hopes to write a children’s book on the subject.
“I just want to contribute as much as I can,” he said.
There’s a reason for that. He considers education in history to be “woeful” in schools. “If we don’t do something about teaching the kids about the past,” he said, “we’ll just force future generations to make the same mistakes over and over and over.”