Raymond Lewis likes to mark special occasions by singing “God Bless America.”
A member of the church choir at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Lewis said he and Tom Blake, the church’s music director, lead their fellow worshippers in a rendition of Irving Berlin’s patriotic anthem on special occasions. The song was released about a year before Raymond Lewis was born.
On Sunday, Aug. 3, members of the congregation joined Lewis in celebrating his 100th birthday. The occasion was marked with several birthday cards, two cakes, a flood of good wishes and Lewis singing a solo of one of his other favorite songs: “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Despite the celebration, Lewis said turning 100 has not affected him all that much.
“It feels no different than I felt 10 years ago,” he said in a voice soft and often halting.
Lewis has lived through the bulk of the 20th century and long enough to witness the first few decades of the 21st. His memory has faded and he now lacks hearing in his left ear. He now relies on a walker to help him move about.
However, despite the effects of age, he knows living as long as he has is not something everyone gets to do. Lewis said that a few years ago, he suffered a burst appendix and had to undergo a risky surgery.
Not too long after, a much younger man in his church congregation underwent the same surgery for the same condition, but died.
The oldest of three sons to a high school mathematics teacher, Lewis was born Aug. 3, 1919, in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania in the same bed his grandmother had given birth to his father.
The world of 1919 was a stark contrast to life in 2019.
“Oh, it was as different as day is from night,” he said.
The year he was born, President Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, radio was still in its infancy and movies did not have sound.
“And of course, there was no television,” Lewis said.
He remembers at the age of 5 or 6, his father purchased a Model T Ford.
“And that was his first car,” he said of his father.
After he graduated from St. Lawrence College in 1941, Lewis was drafted into the U.S. Army. He went through basic training in Oklahoma and then went to officer training school, graduating with the rank of second lieutenant.
In late 1944, he was one of several hundred men sent to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth I. He was assigned to an infantry division quartered in Belgium, arriving near the end of the Battle of the Bulge, with allied forces still receiving fire from German bombers.
Lewis recounts how one faithful day when he was stationed near the Rhine River, with the mission of finding a missing commanding officer, the course of the war changed for him.
Transported by jeep, Lewis arrived in a small town that had been conquered about a day before. Lewis was driven across the small town in a military jeep.
“And the driver turned around at the end of the town and that is when the artillery shell exploded right next to our jeep,” he said. Artillery shell fragments became lodged in the right side of his body.
“Well, that ended the war for me,” he said.
Lewis was transported from one hospital to another, his wounds eventually healed. He would end up in a hospital near Paris, France. His release from the hospital would coincide with Victory in Europe Day or VE Day on May 8, 1945.
Later, he was assigned as part of an occupying force tasked with checking in with mayors of small towns in France, making sure there was no activity by forces within those communities.
In October 1945, Lewis was sent back to the United States, crossing the Atlantic and arriving in New York. From there he headed to New Jersey to see his wife Rita who he had married about a year earlier.
The end of the war, though, did not mean the end of Lewis’ military career.
After a short respite, he was assigned to be part of a housekeeping force in the Philippines.
Living conditions in the country were sometimes less than ideal, such as the hut in which he lived with his wife. They had to sleep with mosquito netting over their bed. On another occasion, a duck got stuck beneath the hut, the quacking often keeping Lewis awake at night.
Two years later, Lewis and his wife returned to the United States. Lewis would eventually retain the rank of captain, before leaving the military in 1953.
He and his wife then moved to Albuquerque and had two daughters. Lewis went to work as a field inspector and later technical writer for Sandia Corporation. They would have two daughters.
Later, Lewis and his wife would divorce and he left his job at Sandia. However, he would eventually begin anew, marrying two more times and starting a new career as a self-employed builder in Albuquerque.
Lewis also found another personal passion: flying. He earned his pilot’s license and would fly single-engine aircraft, traveling across the nation to see friends and go to games played by the New Mexico Lobos, the athletic teams representing the University of New Mexico.
Lewis now resides in Roswell. Retired, he now spends his days with his 10-year-old cat, reading the Albuquerque Journal and socializing with neighbors and members of his congregation.
And of course, Lewis can still be heard singing in the choir at Westminster Presbyterian. He said that Blake can often be seen standing next to him, ready to help in case he misses a note.
The song of Lewis’ life has spanned 100 years, hitting notes high and low, and no one knows how much longer the song will continue.
Lewis, though, said he is not ready to die yet. Chances are, he will be in church this coming Sunday.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.